The lack of experience on the defensive side of the ball puts Kansas State in a precarious situation as the Wildcats attempt to defend their Big 12 championship this season.
With just two returning starters — senior linebacker Tre Walker and senior safety Ty Zimmerman — the Wildcats have a bit of a rebuilding project taking place defensively. Zimmerman has been here before. He’s heard the doubters, year after year.
“Since I’ve been here, people have said, ‘you’re not going to be any good this year, or that year,’ but we’ve improved our record and as a team every year,” he said this week during Big 12 Media Days in Dallas. “We need to take the things from the past and remember what did work or didn’t work and try to develop our own identity.”
But if you can only have two players to start a defense with, it’s hard to go wrong with a linebacker and safety.
After all, Zimmerman says he’s the defensive quarterback.
But wait, so does Walker.
“OK, so it takes two,” Walker quipped. “Linebacker and safety, if you will, are the quarterbacks of the defense because you see everything that’s going on. You can see the coverage. It’s important to have somebody behind you, to see what’s covering you, and you being behind the defensive line and seeing what’s covering them.”
But Walker and Zimmerman have more in common than just being seniors and the only two returning defensive starters for the Wildcats. Both are coming off significant injuries a year ago.
Walker missed the final five games last season with a torn left ACL. And though Zimmerman returned in time for the Fiesta Bowl, he did miss a pair of key games to end the regular season with an ankle injury — including the Wildcats’ heartbreaking loss at Baylor in Week 11 to derail the perfect season.
Both say they’re stronger today, physically and mentally. They say their injuries taught them something. And both feel like they have something to prove this year. They have their work cut out for them, though, as the Wildcats try to support Walker and Zimmerman with a handful of relatively unproven players.
Guys like linebackers Jonathan Truman and Blake Slaughter, defensive backs Kip Daily, Randall Evans and Dante Barnett and defensive linemen Marquel Bryant and Travis Britz will be called on to fill big holes around Walker and Zimmerman.
“I’m telling you, Jonathan Truman, plays on the opposite side of me — he’s going to do some great things,” Walker said. “Watch Blake Slaughter who’s going to do big things and is so unselfish. Travis Britz is strong as an ox and made some big plays against Oklahoma’s top center and guard last year — as a freshman. We have some boys ready to play and show what they can do.”
But Walker also wants to show what he can do. The Olathe North product was a first-year starter for the Wildcats, earning freshman All-America honors in 2010. He followed that up with a solid sophomore season, highlighted by his brick wall defense on the goal line at Miami. But as a junior, Walker said he slipped. He wasn’t on the field as much, even before he was lost for the season. He was splitting time with Jarrell Childs, but in all honesty, spent more time on the sideline than the field.
“I was 20 years old, had a new position coach coming in — I was my old coach’s pride and joy. Those aren’t excuses, but it took some time to get used to a new coach,” Walker said. “That’s tough, getting used to a guy that didn’t recruit me and then coming to find out my new coach is a great man. There were just some things we had to work through that I had to understand. I had to do some maturing and some growing.”
Walker, who has 118 tackles in three seasons, said he’s a better leader today having gone through last year’s ups and downs.
“This experience with the knee, I know is going sound crazy, but it’s been a blessing,” he said. “Me going down that low, I thought I was stronger than I actually was. But throughout the process, I’ve learned a lot about myself and became stronger. I learned that I could endure a little bit more. You never know what you have to go through until you have to do it.
“Every time I’ve talked about pressing on through hard times, I didn’t think I knew what I was talking about until I had that ACL surgery. Then I had to do it myself. Now, I’m able to really connect with my teammates, when you want to quit and throw in the towel.”
Now healthy and at peace with second-year linebackers Mike Cox, Walker has his sights on doing something big this year, starting with his first game back — at home against North Dakota State on Aug. 30.
“I need about 10 tackles, lets say 12, and an interception and some fumble recoveries,” Walker said. “I need to get that feeling back again. I’ve been through my valleys…
“Now, when you come back and its time for you to shine again, you have to shine. You can’t blame anybody at the end of the day for not succeeding.”
Though Zimmerman was able to return against Oregon last season, he too struggled with his injury. The converted quarterback had never missed a game with an injury before — at Junction City High or K-State.
“It was tough for a few weeks,” said Zimmerman, who enters his senior season tied for seventh at K-State with 10 career interceptions. “Having to be out on the sidelines, unable to do very much, was tough. But looking back on it, I know it was a blessing. I learned the game could be taken from you at any moment. It helped me get focused this offseason, to be more hungry.”
It also helped Zimmerman grow as a leader. He’s not the vocal type that Walker has been for the Wildcats. He’s not trying to be. But he said he’s become a better teammate, starting with his tutoring of Barnett, who filled in for Zimmerman as a true freshman last season.
“I try to lead the way I know how to lead,” Zimmerman said. “Tre’s our pump-up guy, gets everyone going. But for me, it’s pulling a guy to the side and saying, ‘here’s our coverage on this play, here’s what you need to do,’ and answering questions. I’m not what Tre is, but I am trying to be more vocal.”
Like Barnett, who was thrown into the fire at Baylor, Zimmerman too had to adjust to a new role, injured and on the sidelines. It was Barnett’s first start, and though he finished with a team-high 14 tackles, the Bears picked on the young Wildcat all night, handing No. 1 K-State its first loss of the season.
“A lot of people didn’t think he played that well, but he finished with 14 tackles or something like that,” Zimmerman said of Barnett. “He had the one pass get over him, but that happens to everybody. I think there was more weight on it because I was there for so long and then out. Everybody looked toward him as the new guy, but we had a lot more problems in that game than him.
“He did a great job stepping up — not too many freshmen could have done that.”