Tyler Lockett straddled Kansas State’s 25-yard line as he prepared to make one of the best defensive backs in college football look silly. It was near the end of the first quarter of the Wildcats’ Nov. 16 matchup with TCU, and Lockett was isolated against All-America corner Jason Verrett.
On first-and-10, Lockett burst off the line of scrimmage. He sprinted forward, and after a few steps, he planted and turned, momentarily making it appear like he was running a comeback route. Verrett bought the fake. Then Lockett bolted upfield and quarterback Jake Waters delivered an on-target strike for a dazzling 74-yard touchdown.
With Verrett covering him for most of the game, Lockett made eight catches for 123 yards, one of seven 100-yard receiving efforts last season. The 5-foot-11, 175-pounder enters his senior year not only as one of the best receivers in the conference, but also as something more. Lockett merits consideration as the most exciting player in the Big 12.
“When you have a special player like Tyler, any time you got a route, he’s one-on-one, I’m looking for him,” Waters told reporters after Lockett made 10 grabs for 116 yards and three scores in the Wildcats’ 31-14 win over Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. “I think he’s going to win it. He knows he’s going to win it.”
In some ways, Lockett’s ascension was easy to foresee. His father, Kevin, and uncle, Aaron, both played at Kansas State under current head coach Bill Snyder. Lockett played on both sides of the ball at Booker T. Washington (Okla.) High, garnering interest from a number of major-conference programs. Still, it was long assumed he would wind up at Kansas State. Lockett committed to the Wildcats in April 2010 before leading the Hornets to a 13-1 record and a Class 5A state title that fall.
Lockett originally said he hoped he to redshirt as a freshman, but it immediately became clear that he was too good to keep off the field. Collin Klein, Kansas State's former starting quarterback who went on to become a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2012, was so impressed with Lockett in summer workouts that he told SI.com he remembers thinking, "‘Hey, this guy can be really, really good.’"
Said Snyder: “He was there on the depth chart. That’s the way any coach does it. Whoever rises to the top certainly gets the opportunity.”
With his main contributions coming as a kick returner, Lockett was named the Big 12 offensive freshman of the year in 2011. Yet it wasn’t until last year that Lockett blossomed into the Wildcats' go-to receiving threat.
Lockett made 13 catches for 237 yards at Texas on Sept. 21. He made 12 grabs for 278 yards and three touchdowns against Oklahoma on Nov. 23. He earned first-team All-Big 12 honors after leading the conference in all-purpose yards (1,859) and receiving yards per game (105.2). Entering this fall, he is 75 catches, nine touchdowns and 838 receiving yards shy of eclipsing his father’s program records in each of those respective categories.
But his stats don’t tell the whole story. To watch Lockett is to appreciate a skilled tactician. Among the moves in Lockett's repertoire: changing directions on a dime, finding crevices in a defense and deking cornerbacks into compromising positions. After the Oklahoma game, Waters described why Lockett is so special.
"The other team knows that we want to get the ball to him because he is our big-time playmaker, but somehow he still continues to just get open," said Waters. "It just amazes me how he does that.”
Aware his size can be a disadvantage, Lockett focuses on the things he can control. He believes that 70 percent of the game is mental and meticulously studies film. He analyzes small details, such as getting in and out of breaks and fighting through jams. “You gotta apply what you do in practice into the game field,” Lockett said. “And I think that it’s your craft and it’s also your work ethic because talent can only take you so far.”
Echoed Klein: “He's such a hard worker. ... I’ve only been gone for one year, but he just keeps getting better and better, and that’s a credit to him.”
Lockett pondered the idea of declaring for the 2014 NFL draft, but elected to stay for his final season and graduate. With the Wildcats losing tailback John Hubert and receiver Tramaine Thompson, Lockett’s role could expand. Only one other Kansas State returnee (Curry Sexton) recorded double-digit receptions in 2013. Lockett should also benefit from the chemistry he developed with Waters, who struggled early last season after transferring from Iowa Western Community College but turned in a series of impressive outings as the Wildcats won six of their last seven games to finish 8-5.
“I think that we’ll just be able to pick up where we left off and just continue to go in from there.” said Lockett, who sat out the spring as a precaution but will be ready for the start of the season, according to an athletic department spokesman. “I think that we can’t do anything else but improve and I think that’s what’s going to help us out in the long run.” While Oklahoma is the preseason Big 12 favorite, there figures to be plenty of conference competition. Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas State could all push the Sooners. The case for the Wildcats is simple: The most exciting player in the Big 12 is back, and it's unclear whether anybody can stop him.