After four years of spring football practices, Kansas State senior receiver Tramaine Thompson knew what to expect when the Wildcats took the field last week.
Change. And lots of it.
“Every spring is weird when you come out there and you see all the starters that were out there last year and all the seniors that left and the new faces that are replacing them,” Thompson said. “You see jersey numbers change. It is a weird time.”
Things feel especially strange right now. In addition to the usual departures and arrivals, K-State players are practicing in a formal setting unsure of who will start at quarterback next season.
Gone is Collin Klein, the Heisman finalist who amassed more than 6,500 yards and led K-State to 21 victories the past two years. In his place are Daniel Sams, who served as Klein’s primary backup as a freshman, and Jake Waters, a highly-touted junior college transfer.
Whoever wins the job will step into an offense loaded with returning talent. All five starters on K-State’s offensive line are back. So are four of the top six receiving threats from last year’s group. Add senior running back John Hubert to the mix, and quarterback is one of the few question marks the Wildcats need to address on offense.
But it’s an awfully big question mark.
“We don’t know what our identity is,” K-State receiver Tyler Lockett said. “We are still trying to find how we are going to identify ourselves this season. People may be able to see it in the spring game and get a feel for what we are going to look like. But we won’t actually know until we find out who is the quarterback.”
K-State coach Bill Snyder didn’t label a favorite Thursday during his first news conference of the spring. Both quarterbacks have shown their skills while splitting time with the first-string offense. But both quarterbacks have also shown their weaknesses.
For now, Snyder is searching for consistency.
“They have ups and downs,” Snyder said. “I have been pleased by the progress they are making, not necessarily with the consistency, but they have given us reason to believe they are very capable. It’s a matter of doing some of the things that they do on a very regular and consistent basis.
“Both of them are taking reps with the No. 1 unit for the first time in their careers. Jake, obviously, being here new, and Daniel was a backup quarterback. That is a new experience for them. They have been very, very competitive.”
The competition is expected to extend into preseason practices, but the quarterback who performs best this month will have an advantage.
“It’s a short period of time,” Snyder said, “but it is as valuable as anything we do.”
Neither Sams nor Waters was available to speak with media on Thursday, but the receivers they have been throwing to on a daily basis said they already have confidence in both quarterbacks.
Sams, as expected, has shown deeper knowledge of the offense, stronger command of the huddle and has continually extended plays with his mobility. A year ago, Sams rushed for 235 yards and three touchdowns while stepping in for Klein late in games. He only attempted eight passes, so questions about his passing remain, but he is one of the most explosive runners on the roster.
“When Collin left he realized this is my time. I’ve got to be the guy,” receiver Curry Sexton said of Sams. “I think that has helped him so much. Through winter workouts, he stepped up. He learned a lot of the offense. You can tell he studied it. He has grown a lot.”
Waters, who led Iowa Western Community College to a national championship last season, has shown off his football knowledge and his arm. Though he can’t match Sams’ speed, he is a dual-threat quarterback. And he is known as a more accurate passer.
Receivers say he is already completing passes when they run complicated routes.
“With Jake you have to be ready for balls in situations you haven’t ever had,” Sexton said. “Coming in and out of certain breaks, the ball is on you. On routes that typically have been dead in the past you might be a viable receiver now. It’s helped us. You can be anywhere on the field and still be open.”
Fans will get their first look at both quarterbacks during the spring game on April 27. Until then, K-State coaches and players will observe the competition privately, but with plenty of intrigue.
Even though they are young, Sams or Waters will shape K-State’s offense in the fall.
“They have been working together during this whole process,” Thompson said. “There is no animosity between them. They work together and realize that pushing each other is going to help them in the long run. They are both pretty good athletes. They both have big arms. They are a little inexperienced, but I think they are going to come along pretty good.”