Shortly after their first practice together, Will Geary sensed something special about Jesse Ertz.
It was 2013 and they were redshirt freshmen playing on Kansas State’s scout team. As a defensive tackle, Geary watched Ertz complete pass after pass against the Wildcats’ first-string defense. Ertz was a young quarterback with lots to improve, but all Geary saw was a gifted passer who scored 130 touchdowns in high school. He was so impressed that he grabbed his phone and changed Ertz’s contact info.
Now, whenever Geary sends Ertz a text, his phone flashes the following: “Heisman 2017.”
“I believe in Jesse,” Geary said Tuesday. “Have for a long time. He is a good guy, he knows the game, he knows how to be a leader and he can make some pretty amazing throws. I definitely think he is going to have a good season.”
Many at K-State share optimism about Ertz, the team’s new starting quarterback. Though Geary is the only one predicting a future Heisman Trophy campaign, his teammates are eager to see what he can do against South Dakota on Saturday. Coach Bill Snyder shared only positives about Ertz after announcing he won the quarterback job at his first weekly news conference of the season.
“We want a balanced quarterback,” Snyder said. “That is our ideal thing, to have the guy who can run it, throw it and make good decisions, provide leadership, process information – all those things are vital to that position. He covers the entire spectrum.”
Ertz, a redshirt sophomore from Burlington, Iowa, took command of a four-man position battle that Snyder described as wide open at the beginning of August, decisively beating teammates Jonathan Banks, Alex Delton and Joe Hubener. None of them knew for sure who won until Tuesday, but Snyder said Ertz made the decision easy.
He outclassed the competition early and took sole command of the first-string offense last week.
“Jesse earned it outright,” said Hubener, listed as the co-backup along with Delton. “He was the most consistent day in and day out. He performed incredibly well throughout camp. He deserves it.”
Consistency might as well have been the word of the day.
Receivers Dominique Heath and Deante Burton both praised Ertz for his consistent work ethic. They said he asked them to stay after every practice to work on timing routes. Hubener and Geary said Ertz consistently made routine throws and avoided big mistakes. Snyder said he could not compare Ertz to any of his former quarterbacks, but he always knows what he will get from Ertz during a scrimmage.
“Jesse performed with greater consistency than the others did,” Snyder said. “It’s that simple.”
Ertz soaked up every kind word. He lacks experience at the college level, rushing for 46 yards in four games as a reserve without completing a pass. He battled injuries — specifically, a torn ACL — coming out of high school. And he spent all of last season as the team’s third-string quarterback behind Hubener and former starter Jake Waters.
At times, it felt like his dream of starting for the Wildcats might not become reality. But he improved and vaulted to the top of K-State’s depth chart. He is ready for his first college start.
“I am just really excited,” Ertz said. “I am very lucky to be in the spot that I am. Hopefully I can keep working hard and keep improving and keep going further with it.”
Ertz says he has more to prove.
It is rare for an underclassman to start at quarterback under Snyder. Collin Klein was the last passer to do it, when he was a sophomore in 2010. The last underclassman quarterback to start the season under Snyder was Dylan Meier in 2004. Josh Freeman started as a freshman under Ron Prince.
They all carried more star power than Ertz. Though he put up big numbers, topping 9,000 total yards, and was named 2012 Iowa Gatorade Player of the Year at tiny Mediapolis High, he was lightly recruited.
Fast forward three years, and a teammate says he has Heisman potential. That’s a big jump.
After years of trying to prove doubters wrong, he’s now trying to prove supporters right.
“I am an unknown for the most part,” Ertz said. “I can’t sit here and act like I have proven anything. I am just looking forward to making plays and playing games.... To get an opportunity at a big stage like this means a lot to me. I am ready to make the most of it.”