SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It came as no shock to Ryan Mueller when he was named the Big 12’s Defensive Lineman of the Year. The same can be said about the four different All-America designations the Kansas State junior has earned the past three weeks.
Mueller expects to be the best. Nothing else is acceptable for the former walk-on from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Leawood.
Considering that, it’s a good thing Mueller might actually be the best.
(Kansas State’s Ryan Mueller strips Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty during a game on Oct. 12, at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Mueler has had a successful season, ranking among the nation’s best defensive lineman in sacks and tackles for loss).
The star defensive end’s expectation for excellence should not be mistaken for cockiness or arrogance, though. Confident and prideful are probably better words to describe Mueller. He oozes both as the leader of the surging Wildcats, who won five of six games to end the regular season.
“I expected that from myself, to be the best player I can be for this team,” said Mueller, whose 11.5 sacks this season tied the K-State single-season record with Nyle Wiren (1996) and Ian Campbell (2006). “Every season I write down goals for myself that I want to accomplish — on and off-the-field goals that I want to be the best player and person for this team. I expect success from myself and the best from myself.
“If you don’t expect it from yourself, who is going to expect it from you?”
But a great deal has come to be expected from Mueller now. He’s no longer the under-recruited kid from Johnson County, who worked his way from walk-on, to scout-team player, to back-up and now the best defensive lineman in the Big 12.
“If something is really important to me, I’m going to whatever it takes to go after it and get it,” Mueller said. “If that makes me an overachiever… I don’t know. I just work hard.”
Instead, he’s emerged as one of the most dominant defensive ends in the game and the face of the Wildcats’ defense that is preparing to face Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl this Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. — televised nationally on ESPN beginning at 9:15 p.m.
Mueller’s breakout junior season hasn’t gone unnoticed — he was named an All-American by CBSSports.com, Sports Illustrated, Phil Steele and the Football Writers Association following a season in which he led the Big 12 and ranked 11th nationally with 18.5 tackles for loss.
“That’s great for me, but its also a huge compliment to those guys I play with on Saturdays, the guys who help me earn those awards,” said Mueller, who was also named first-team All-Big 12. “If I made a play here or there, good for me, but it’s a team sport and it’s a credit to Kansas State and my teammates.”
It’s that success on the field that has made Mueller into a credible leader for a defense that went into this season looking to replace nine starters, including 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Arthur Brown. The Wildcats needed a voice. And more importantly, the Wildcats needed someone who could back up that voice.
“It’s one thing to talk about it, its another thing to talk about it and be about it,” Mueller said. “It definitely helps to prove yourself on the field and then expect the same from your teammates.”
K-State head coach Bill Snyder said there are many players who have some leadership abilities, but not everyone is like Mueller.
“It’s the same old thing, that they’re 18 years old, and everybody’s not like this, but if you’re going to follow someone, you’re going to follow someone that does it, other than just talk about it,” Snyder said. “Actions speak louder than words. Isn’t that what they say?”
Mueller appears to be a natural leader. Others, like Brown, had to grow into that role over time, and it still wasn’t easy to do.
“I think with Ryan, what comes natural to him is he’s a very vocal guy,” Snyder said. “I’m not sure in all of his tenure that all the things that he’s been able to vocalize were always the things I wanted to hear.
“But as I’ve said so many times, nobody works any harder and nobody goes any harder. He’s working very diligently on being able to communicate with his teammates in the right way, and I appreciate that a great deal.”
Mueller said it’s impossible for him to just lead by example.
“I’m a people person, I like to talk, I don’t feel like I can get through to people if I’m not communicating this way,” said Mueller, who had just 14 tackles and two sacks as a sophomore.
Mueller has done a lot of talking, too, unafraid to tell it like it is, even when it may not be something his teammates want to hear. In fact, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound marketing major has had several inspired talks with his teammates this season, or more specifically, challenges, for a team that struggled to do much of anything right in the early going. Something had to change after K-State lost four of its first six games, making the likelihood of playing in a fourth straight bowl game look like a long shot at best.
“I talked to the team about how good of a player they wanted to be for this program, or if they just wanted to be a t-shirt guy — one of those guys who is just happy to wear the gear around campus,” Mueller said. “It was, ‘are you satisfied, or do you want to raise your game?’
“A good way to do that is to eliminate distractions, whether that’s playing video games, being on the social networks or partying with friends, whatever it is that’s holding you back from being your absolute best for this program.”
Mueller, now arguably the most decorated defensive end in school history, said his foundation for becoming this demand-only-the-best type of leader started with his parents.
“There were a lot of talks at home with mom and dad — I wasn’t always a perfect angel and was a pain in the butt growing up,” he said. “Enough parent talks, getting grounded and growing up has all helped me know the kind of person I want to be…
“It’s about the kind of person you are without the shoulder pads and helmet and how you represent yourself.”