Jake Waters has always been the big man on campus.
That’s not about to change now, either, as the junior college transfer was named Kansas State’s starting quarterback this week for the Wildcats’ season opener at home against North Dakota State on Friday.
Whether it was as a three-year starter at St. Albert High in Council Bluffs, Iowa, or at Iowa Western Community College, Waters has been winning and putting up eye-popping numbers his entire career.
The 6-foot-1 gunslinger won back-to-back state titles in Iowa — passing for more than 5,000 yards and 70 touchdowns in three seasons. Then last year, Waters passed for 3,501 yards and 39 touchdowns to lead the Reivers to a JUCO national championship. He tossed just three interceptions, completed better than 73 percent of his passes and was named the NJCAA National Offensive Player of Year.
It remains to be seen exactly what the K-State version looks like, but if his track record is any indicator, the Wildcats might have found themselves a pretty special quarterback to take the reins from Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein. At the very least, he’ll get the first shot over sophomore Daniel Sams at keeping the job.
“Seeing Jake grow since he got here last spring, to where he is now, you can see that desire and that hunger to want to be better and make everyone around him better,” junior receiver Tyler Lockett said Tuesday. “You see him in the film room day in and day out really trying to gain an understanding of this offense and trying to be the best quarterback he can be. That’s what you want in a quarterback.”
K-State coach Bill Snyder said his decision to choose Waters came down to consistency — feeling sometime last weekend that Waters would be his starter against North Dakota State.
“I think the competition was productive, was extremely competitive during that period of time,” he said. “Jake just displayed more consistency in all the areas we’ve talked about in terms of managing the offense and being able to provide the kind of leadership we want, as well as the actual physical aspect of it.”
Waters will become only the second quarterback in school history to follow a Heisman Trophy finalist. The first was Jonathan Beasley, who not only was beat out for the starting job by Michael Bishop, but took over for the Heisman runner-up two years later and led the Wildcats to back-to-back 11-win seasons.
It’s easy to want to compare Bishop and Waters because of their JUCO success — big-armed quarterbacks who both won national titles. But their paths to K-State were actually quite different. Bishop was named the starter his junior season after arriving in Manhattan only three weeks earlier, while Waters joined the Wildcats last spring, giving him eight months to grow into the program.
“Michael was late, came in July, so he had very little preparation time his first year here,” Snyder said. “Jake came here in December, so that made a big difference — they weren’t on the same footing as to how they progressed. Michael was a very talented athlete and could do a lot of things, and at the time, he was somewhat mistake-prone early in his career when we named him the starter. But the talent kind of took over and we tried to control it enough and not put him in those situations where he could make those mistakes.
“For Jake, having the opportunity to be here at semester and the summer puts him well ahead of where Michael was in terms of a global understanding of our offense.”
It’s also worth noting that Waters isn’t the only big-time JUCO quarterback to sign at K-State. Sure, Bishop was incredibly successful wearing the purple and white, but there was another offensive national player of the year who wasn’t, at all — Marc Dunn.
Dunn came to K-State from Ricks College in Idaho after setting numerous passing records for yards and touchdowns. Choosing the Wildcats over BYU, Arizona State and Houston, Dunn was largely unimpressive while in Manhattan, as he had to split time with rising star Ell Roberson. He finished his two-year career with 1,018 yards, 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
But something about Waters has others believing he’s different, that he won’t bust and that he won’t be a one-week wonder. Nobody’s predicting the second coming of Bishop either, but like the Wildcats’ first Heisman finalist, Waters’ ability behind closed practices has his teammates talking.
“One of the things we learned about him when he first got here is that we’ve got to hurry up and snap our neck around because he’ll throw it and it’ll hit your helmet,” said Tyler Lockett, whose uncle Aaron caught passes from Bishop almost 15 years ago.
“He’s been a winner everywhere he’s been,” K-State freshman fullback Glenn Gronkowski said. “He has confidence. We see that and want to feed off that as an offense. He wants to be better and make everyone around him better.”
K-State center B.J. Finney said during Big 12 media days in Dallas that fall camp would show everyone what they need to know about the Wildcats’ two quarterbacks.
“You won’t be able to replace Collin Klein,” he said a little more than a month ago. “Those are big shoes to fill and they need to be picked up by the 10 others guys on that field, so the quarterback doesn’t feel like he needs to be Collin Klein.”
Waters hasn’t only won the starting job, but also his teammates’ respect.
“Jake is an extremely hard worker,” Finney said this week. “He analyzes everything — he knows where he has to be and what he has to do. He steps up to do the best job that he can, and if he does make a mistake, then he’s trying to learn from it as soon as it happens.
“I see the want and the will to get better, that sense of being competitive. Both Jake and Collin share that. There’s a fire within them — they want to be the best that they can. Jake definitely has the same intense burn that Collin had.”