Note: Longhorns Country's "Around the Big 12" series will feature stories on all 10 programs in preparation for the 2021 season.
ARLINGTON -- Skyler Thompson sat in front of dozen reporters as questions started to fly off tongues. As a veteran, he should be accustomed to answering these in a matter of minutes.
Thompson, a redshirt senior, understands what could have been a season ago. A victory over Oklahoma in Week 2 gave Kansas State momentum. But an injury to the leader of the offense took it right away.
Thompson suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder that ended his season. He exited against Texas Tech with the lead, only to undergo surgery. The Wildcats trusted freshman Will Howard lead the offense for the remainder of the year.
A 4-0 conference start was washed away with five straight losses. A fanbase in Manhattan now will always think "what if" Thompson had remained healthy.
Thompson's not much for hypotheticals. He faces the problems head on.
“When you’ve been around the block a few times like I have, you realize what’s important and what’s just white noise,” Thompson said during Big 12 media days. “I’ve seen everything. I’ve been in a quarterback battle, I’ve been called on to win games. I’ve been benched. I’ve played for two head coaches and three offensive coordinators. I’ve had a season-ending injury. Seriously, you name it and I’ve experienced it.”
The Wildcats enter 2021 projected to finish seventh in the Big 12. You think third-year coach Chris Klieman is worried about it? He'll let his offense do the talking come November.
“It’s pretty irrelevant in my mind,” Klieman said. “Somebody told me we were picked ninth the first year and we finished third. You can be picked second and finish (last). You still have to tee it up and be better every week and get better every day, and for us, (we need) to stack great days and give ourselves an opportunity to be successful."
If anything, Klieman should be happy with the ruling of an extra year of eligibility for his quarterback. Since arriving from Fargo and the FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, the Wildcats are 10-6 with Thompson starting. Without him they are a dismal 2-5.
Expectations were high when Klieman was announced to be the replacement for legendary Bill Synder. A proven winner one division below, the 53-year-old went 69-6 with the Bison in five years.
In four of them, North Dakota State won it all. Having the "super seniors" back because of the ruling might be what's set K-State back on track.
“I hope the product is going to be a lot better, because you’re going to have so many kids that are going to be in the program a year longer,” Klieman said. “I know that last year the product of football across all landscapes wasn’t probably to anybody’s real liking because you were missing kids every week, NFL to college to high school.”
Thompson has proven he can sling it as the leader of the offense. Will Howard, who learned some hard lessons in going 2-5 as a starter, can be a competent backup in case.
Klieman has made it clear Thompson is the guy for Week 1 against Stanford. That doesn't mean Howard won't see reps as well.
"It's pretty cool when -- quarterback oftentimes is a position that you either have one or you have none, and we have at least two and some other kids that potentially have a chance," Klieman said.
Thompson wouldn't go into too much detail on the injury. Klieman didn't either. All that matters if is he's ready to go for the start of the season.
With 30 starts and nearly at the top of every category in program history, a sixth season in Manhattan might be a blessing is disguise.
“I never thought I’d be saying thank you to COVID, but here I am saying thank you for that,” Thompson said. “It made the process of coming back way easier than what it would have been at any other time. Now, I’m super hungry."
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Thompson isn't the only name looking to surprise people offensively. Bouncing in the backfield is Deuce Vaughn, the All-American from Round Rock, Texas. In his first season, he was a weapon as a receiver, averaging 14.8 yards after the catch (sixth nationally among all RBs) and forcing 25 missed tackles.
For the year, he surpassed 1,000 total yards from scrimmage (642 rushing, 434 yards), the only freshman in the FBS to accomplish that feat. The only reason he didn't make All-Big 12 is because of Iowa State's Breece Hall and Texas' Bijan Robinson.
"He felt like he has more to prove," Klieman said. "And an unbelievable young man with an unbelievable family and set of parents that have taught him the right way, and he's a tremendous leader and he's a tremendous football player."
Vaughn will be the ticket, but knowing Klieman's offense, they'll be looking for more runners. Both Joe Ervin and Jacardia Wright are expected to expand their roles from a season ago.
One will be used as a '"scat back" option. The other will be the bruiser. Combined, it could lead to a top rushing attack in 2021.
Thompson needs to improve his rapport with the wide receivers. Last season, it was Vaughn who led the way in receiving. Transfer tight end Briley Moore-McKinney finished second with 338 yards.
Maybe transfer tight ends are a positive at K-State. They'll be hopeful former USC and Illinois starter Daniel Imatorbhebhe can be the next answer.
"He can do everything as a tight end," Klieman said of his new 6-6 target. "He can run, he can block, he can move but his biggest impact has been in our locker room.
"And I see his rapport with Skylar and will and our quarterbacks, he's out there all the time, running around, catching balls, and we know he's going to be an impact for us."
Imatorbhebhe, nicknamed "Bay-Bay" by Thompson and Klieman, has seen a plethora of offensive coordinators and quarterbacks in his five college seasons. That alone adds some value, as does his frame.
"He's been around the block," Thompson said. "He's played with Sam Darnold in the Rose Bowl, he's played Alabama in this stadium. He's been there and he's done it. I think that's the best part about him."
A veteran tight end and 5-5 running back can't be all the offense. It's why Klieman focused part of his offseason in finding stability at the wide receiver position. He has few name that are expected to take the next step this fall.
Said Klieman: "Phillip Brooks can be a really good receiver for us. We know he's a great returner, Chabastin Taylor missed spring ball. So he's still getting back from an injury. I'm excited to see what Kade Warner can do coming in here. He's jumped in with both feet in the summertime."
Another name to watch for will be Jaelon Travis. Klieman said he "quantum leaped" his ability from the fall to the spring.
Is that enough offensively?
One year after surprising the Big 12 with a third place finish, K-State finished a disappointing 2020 middle of the pack. Was it due to other team's growth or rather a "what if" under center?
It's a new season in Manhattan — maybe even better than the one before?
In football, teams can usually win with the right coach and right quarterback. Klieman has proven he is the right coach. Thompson, when healthy, is the right quarterback.
Time to put it altogether for one last ride in The Little Apple together.
“When I walk away from here, regardless of wins and losses, I hope people remember me as a true K-Stater,” Thompson said, "I stayed committed and did everything we could to help us win games and make our program better.”
CONTINUE READING: Around The Big 12: Aranda Brings Baylor Defense To Forefront