Travis Britz is about to enter new territory.
On Friday, the sophomore defensive tackle will start his first college game. It’s a moment he has been looking forward to since he signed with Kansas State as a high school senior out of Harrisonville, Mo. The countdown is about to switch from days to hours.
He doesn’t know what to expect, but he is sure of one thing: He won’t let nerves get the best of him.
“Last year at this time I was nervous,” Britz said Tuesday. “I was a couple days away from my first college game. It was my first time in front of 50,000 people. I didn’t handle it well. I didn’t think the game was going to be as fast as it was. Now that I have played the game more and learned my position, everything has really slowed down.”
He’s improved so much, many consider Britz to be the new face of K-State’s defensive line. So what if he is young and has only played in 11 games? He has taken advantage of his playing time to become one of the team’s most mature underclassmen.
The Wildcats are counting on him to make plays and provide a calming presence up front.
Britz will start with three other defensive linemen who are trying to fill a large void. The Wildcats lost all four starters off their defensive line last season. Their replacements — Ryan Mueller, Chaquil Reed, Marquel Bryant and Britz — are all former backups.
Good thing Britz talks like a veteran, and has advice for his teammates.
“Clear your mind,” Britz said. “That’s really all you can do. You don’t have to worry about the 50,000 fans. They are behind you and supporting you. You just have to execute your job and know what you are doing.”
Those words come from his on-field experience. Even though Britz has never started, he has played meaningful snaps. Last year, he made six tackles in 11 games and forced a fumble while bringing down former Oklahoma State running back Joseph Randle.
That was his favorite play from last season. But his favorite memory is wider ranging.
“It was just being out there,” Britz said. “I never thought I would be playing as a true freshman. Just thinking back to watching the Rose Bowl when I was 10 years old, I remember thinking, wow, those guys look so old. To be out there was crazy and just a dream come true.”
Britz thinks he is fully adjusted to the college game now. He says he can consistently stop the run, and the defensive line has come together as a group. They want to prove they are every bit as good as their predecessors.
That much seems unlikely, at least right away. But they will enter the season opener against North Dakota State battle tested. Practicing against an offensive line that returns six starters from last season isn’t easy.
“It was so much help knowing these guys are a pretty good offensive line, maybe the best in the Big 12,” Britz said. “When you defeat a block against them you know you are beating a quality block. It was back and forth. That’s how it should go as a team.”
Junior center B.J. Finney was impressed by the unit’s progression and Britz’s maturity.
“Travis has worked extremely hard,” Finney said. “He is a lot bigger and a lot more physical guy. He has stepped up into a leadership role. He has got that D-line going. Guys are working. Guys understand what is expected of them. Travis has helped them and has them going in the right direction.”
Echoed fullback Glenn Gronkowski: “Watching him out there, he is a big dude. I know it’s tough for some of our linemen to block him. I’m expecting big things out of him.”
His time is coming.
After getting on the field as a freshman – no small feat under K-State coach Bill Snyder – he is ready to lead a new group of defensive linemen into a new season.
“I knew I needed to be a leader for these guys, because I have been pretty experienced from last year,” Britz said. “I needed to show these guys this isn’t high school anymore. This is a higher level. You really need to work hard to be successful. They have all responded. I see flashes of guys who really want to work hard and improve every day.”
Senior Andre McDonald and Zach Trujillo are deadlocked in a competition at tight end. Both have plenty of experience as backups. The same can’t be said for kicker and punter. Jack Cantele and Matthew McCrane have never attempted a field goal. At punter, Mark Krause and Ethan Hammes were stuck behind Ryan Doerr last year.
The depth chart lacked surprise starters, but a few names were intriguing. Curry Sexton beat out Deante Burton for the third receiver spot.
“He put himself in position to be the third guy,” Snyder said of Sexton. “He runs routes extremely well, catches the ball well and is an aggressive player. He is a good blocker as well as a receiver.”
Randall Evans has been moved to a traditional cornerback position after playing only in the nickel formation last season. Kip Daily will back him up, while Heights High grad Dorrian Roberts will start at the other corner position and be backed up by Trinity Academy grad Morgan Burns. Snyder said cornerback will remain a competitive position as the season goes forward.
“Probably just prior to making the announcement (on Monday),” Snyder said. “I think that the competition was productive and I think it was extremely competitive during that period of time. Consistency was a big part of it and many other things. Just as far as being able to say, in my own mind, I know this is the way we want to enter the first ballgame, probably three days ago maybe.”
Snyder didn’t reveal his decision to players before informing the media. Tyler Lockett and B.J. Finney said they heard the news from their parents, who read about the news while they were in class.
Snyder is notorious for praising future opponents, regardless of their skill level. So when he was asked about North Dakota State, the top-ranked team in the Championship Subdivision, it was hardly surprising to hear him throw out compliments. But he also had good things to say about Louisiana-Lafayette, which K-State will face on Sept. 7.
“It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire,” Snyder said.
Neither opponent will be a cupcake. Still, you wonder what Snyder will say about playing at Texas and Oklahoma State in back-to-back games when conference play begins.