Scott Strohmeier shut his mouth, crossed his fingers and hoped no one else saw what he did: Jake Waters was a superstar in waiting.
In the spring of 2010, Strohmeier, coach of the Iowa Western Reivers, a junior college in Council Bluffs, Iowa, couldn’t believe he was about to land a guy he thought was a Power Five prospect.
At tiny St. Albert High in Council Bluffs -- where Jake’s brother, Matt, was a standout receiver before heading to Iowa Western himself -- Waters was a multi-sport star who played football, basketball and baseball. He threw for 5,288 yards and 70 touchdowns in his prep career and ran for an additional 1,820 yards and 28 touchdowns. Because baseball is a summer sport in Iowa, Waters never got a chance to showcase his gridiron skill set at summer camps on major college campuses.
“Everybody starts talking about how he went to a 1A (classification) high school where the competition wasn’t good enough,” Strohmeier said.
“I understand why coaches might look at me and look at someone from, say, Texas, and decide to take a chance on that guy instead,” Waters said. “I had no doubt I could play at this level. I just needed someone to take a chance on me.”
That wasn’t happening out of high school. So Waters, a 6-foot-1 right-hander, landed at Iowa Western. Three seasons later, after 3,501 yards, 39 touchdowns and the 2012 NJCAA national championship, Waters will star Thursday as his No. 20 Kansas State Wildcats host No. 5 Auburn.
Not bad for a guy no one wanted.
“The kid was dominant in high school,” Strohmeier said. “And he had won. He was 31-2 as a high school starter and then he comes here and goes 21-2.
“I knew how talented he was, but he’s an unbelievable kid, too -- the hardest working kid in the weight room and a student of the game. If I said today, ‘I’m going to go recruit a quarterback,’ everything I’d be looking for I could find in him. He has everything. I mean, he would probably like to be two inches taller, but who wouldn’t?”
During his first year in Manhattan, Kan., Waters started every game for the Wildcats (Baylor’s Bryce Petty was the only other Big 12 quarterback who also started every game) but split time with Daniel Sams. Though he threw for 2,469 yards and 18 touchdowns and tacked on 312 rushing yards and six scores, Waters admitted this week that last year, “I was kind of looking over my shoulder if I had a bad series or bad play or bad drive. If we stalled a little bit, I worried I might get taken out. This year I know I’m ‘The Guy.’ That’s huge for my confidence, plus having a year in this system.”
Clearly, Waters does well when acting as the primary signal caller: In two games this season, he’s completed 35-of-57 passes for 462 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 193 yards on 37 carries with four touchdowns.
“I watched him in fall camp, and it’s clear that he’s playing at a different level because his confidence is at a different level,” Strohmeier said.
At Iowa Western, Waters didn’t run much because the Reivers didn’t need him to. “We averaged 63 points a game,” explained Strohmeier, adding that when Waters did tuck the ball and run, it was “highlights across the board.”
After one offer following the 2011 season -- from North Dakota -- scholarship opportunities poured in for Waters a year later as he led Iowa Western to a 12-0 record. Originally smitten by Penn State and then-coach Bill O’Brien, Waters had an 11th-hour change of heart and picked the Wildcats on Dec. 11, 2012.
Bill Snyder and his staff have built a top 25 program with a repeated influx of junior college talent. That calling card attracted Waters, as did the Wildcats’ use of dual-threat quarterbacks. Penn State also already had a commitment from five-star quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
“I texted my dad one day and said, ‘I’m going to go to Penn State,’ and he was excited for me. Then [my family and I] had a sit down talk the night before I was going to commit and realized Kansas State might be the best for me because of coach (Bill) Snyder and what he’s done with quarterbacks who can throw,” Waters said. “I thought I could be utilized best here.”
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has likened Waters to a running back in Kansas State’s offense, and said this week that the Tigers are doing “different things” to prep for one of the best quarterbacks in the country.
A few years ago, the senior couldn’t have imagined being in this position. And the opportunity to make a statement on a national stage isn’t lost on him.
“It’s kind of surreal knowing I was dreaming about this in high school and I was so upset I didn’t get that opportunity initially,” Waters said. “Now to be able to play in a game like this, it’s a special feeling.”
As for Strohmeier, well, he gets to say he saw all this coming.