MANHATTAN – Kyle Klein was not certain he would play football again when he underwent surgery to repair a protruding disc in his back last August.
The injury sent severe pain through his body that made moving his left leg impossible at times before surgery. Afterward, he spent entire days in bed. He missed his entire junior season, rehabilitating his back for six months until he was cleared to run at full speed while teammates prepared for the Alamo Bowl.
It was a challenging time, but Klein is not bitter. He learned something from the experience.
“It gave me a chance to step back and really realize how much I missed football,” Klein said, “and that translated into excitement and fun coming back into this year.”
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Klein, a senior receiver, has brought more than good vibes with him since he made his return to practice. K-State coach Bill Snyder has already singled out Klein as one of the standout players of the spring. His improbable contributions are a welcome sight for a team looking to replace Tyler Lockett and Curry Sexton -- a pair of 1,000-yard receivers – and Jake Waters, a two-year starter at quarterback.
“He has continually made some extremely difficult catches,” Snyder said Tuesday of Klein during his second news conference of the spring. “He did again yesterday. He has put one or two on the ground and has some technical inconsistencies. Still, he grades out very high.”
Many did not see this coming. Klein did not spend a second of the regular season wearing football pads or catching passes. Instead, he gave his teammates words of advice during warmups and accompanied offensive coordinators Dana Dimel and Del Miller to the press box during games to help them read defenses and interpret signals.
Klein jokes that Dimel allowed him to call an occasional play, but it’s not true. He did not make a single hands-on contribution.
To hear Snyder praise his playmaking skills now is almost too much to comprehend.
“It has really been incredible to come back,” Klein said. “It has definitely been a journey.”
“It is just incredible for him to come back,” added quarterback Joe Hubener. “Having done literally nothing for a whole year, to step back and he now be right back in the mix is amazing. He is a big target. He has big hands. He runs deceptively well. It shouldn’t be a surprise he is doing this, knowing Kyle and how hard he can work, but it is a surprise. He is playing so well.”
Klein has as much upside as any K-State receiver. Though he has little to his name in terms of statistics – five catches for 59 yards in his two seasons – he has good size and soft hands. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, he can reach passes some receivers can’t. He also knows what it takes to succeed in Snyder’s offense, having watched his older brother, Collin, lead the Wildcats to a Big 12 championship and the Fiesta Bowl as a quarterback.
That type of on-field success has eluded Klein since arriving at K-State in 2011.
“You want to go out there and have that job,” Klein said. “You want to go out there and start. You want to catch passes and contribute and all those things. It is highly motivating to know that there are opportunities. Granted, Tyler and Curry were phenomenal football players and I, in previous years, have been in more of a support role. This year, it is exciting to have the opportunity to go out and potentially be the main target.”
Klein has work to do before he climbs to the top of K-State’s depth chart. Still, being on it at all brings a smile when he remembers where he was last summer.
“Some guys have a legitimate reason to hang it up, but I knew I wasn’t ready to be done with football,” Klein said. “That translated into rehab and a lot of work to get back. I wanted to give it my best shot. If I could do it, I could. If not, God had something else for me.”
Quarterback update – The competition to replace Waters will extend beyond spring practices, Snyder said. It doesn’t matter how strong Hubener, Jesse Ertz or Alex Delton play during K-State’s spring game on April 25, Snyder thinks the race is close enough to carry over to summer workouts. For now, he said, Hubener and Ertz are splitting time with the first-team offense, while Delton is handling some second-team duties. When asked specifically about Delton, a freshman from Hays, Snyder said he is playing as well as any freshman quarterback he has coached, saying he compared to Ell Roberson.
Depth chart news – Charles Jones has ascended to the top spot in the running back competition, Snyder said. But Jones will have to work hard to stay there. Snyder said he was impressed by Alex Barnes and Dalvin Warmack at the same position. Snyder also said redshirt freshman Dalton Risner has been serving as the team’s primary center during spring practices.