There was a time it seemed the quarterback job at Kansas State would just be handed to Daniel Sams this season, like an old-fashioned, next-in-line type of gig.
All that changed last spring with the arrival of Jake Waters, a big-armed slinger with eye-popping passing numbers coming off a junior college national title.
This is a battle, and one that’s quite unique, given the Wildcats are coming off a Big 12 championship and an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl last season.
Not only are Sams and Waters trying to fill a huge void left by Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein, but the two quarterbacks also inherit the keys to an offense that looks more like your daddy’s Cadillac than the rebuilt rust bucket normally reserved for first-time drivers.
The Wildcats — though they lost Klein, top receiver Chris Harper, tight end Travis Tannahill and fullback Braden Wilson — return all the key pieces this unit needs to keep moving forward. Whether it’s Sams or Waters, they’ll be protected by five returning starters on the offensive line, two of the Wildcats’ top receivers and an All-Big 12 running back in John Hubert.
Not to shabby for the QB’s first wheels.
“I can’t think about this as replacing Collin or trying to do what he did because he was a one-of-a-kind quarterback,” Waters said. “Nobody is going to come in and do what he did, so I just have to use the other guys who are back to help me — use that line to my advantage, use those receivers, use John Hubert — to make it easier on me.”
Now, if only K-State coach Bill Snyder would name his Week 1 starter against North Dakota State.
It appears right now, nobody will know who gets the first test drive until either Sams or Waters runs onto the field that Friday night at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. The quarterback battle is a dead heat with both guys splitting reps.
“We’re just trying to make each other better,” said Waters on the competition for the starting job. “If we do that, we make the entire team better. That’s what we want.”
They both also want to be the starter too.
“It’s friendly, even on the field, but at the same time, it’s a competition,” Sams said. “We both want the job.”
Waters — a 6-foot-1, 201-pound junior — signed with K-State in time to join the Wildcats for spring practices. He brought a hefty bag of achievements with him from Iowa Western where he passed for more than 3,500 yards and 39 touchdowns — all while throwing only three interceptions and completing a record 73.3 percent of his attempts. He was also named the National Junior College Offensive Player of the Year.
So what did Sams think of the late signing brought in to compete for his starting job?
“I liked it, actually,” said Sams, who is entering his redshirt-sophomore season at K-State. “I looked him up and saw what he did, saw the records he broke. It was good because I can’t get complacent.
“I was looking forward to him coming in. When he got here, I introduced myself and from that day on, we hit it off. He came in with mutual respect too and was like, ‘I’m just here to compete and I just want to play.’ I said the same thing.”
Sams might have some edge over his fall camp roommate, Waters, simply because he’s been in the system two years longer. On the field, Sams still hasn’t been able to really show off his stuff either, serving as Klein’s backup and only getting on the field at the end of games.
The Slidell, La., native was 6-of-8 passing for 55 yards last season, while rushing 32 times for 235 yards and three scores. His most significant action came at home against Oklahoma State after Klein was knocked from the game with a concussion. Sams completed 5 of 6 attempts for 45 yards and rushed seven times for 20 yards in the second half.
Both QBs are in uncharted waters, though — as Waters admits that he’s never had to compete for a starting job before, and Sams is really competing for the job for the first time in the two-plus years he’s been here because of Klein.
“It’s never been handed to me, but I was kind of the next guy in line in high school and the next guy in line at junior college,” Waters said. “I definitely competed, but here you have to compete every single rep, every meeting — every second you’re competing. And the coaches are watching you, seeing how you react to a bad throw or a bad play. You have to stay on your toes, that’s what is so different.”
For Sams, he knew his place, to back up Klein and be ready if he was called on due to an injury.
“When I got here, Collin was here, it was his position,” Sams said. “I still tried to compete, but I didn’t know the offense as well as Collin. That’s like a coach on the field, honestly. I played my role.”
Sams’ role was also to learn from Klein, but many of those lessons weren’t on the football field or with a football in his hand.
“It’s about doing things right,” Sams said. “What I loved about Collin is that he wasn’t hypocritical. He was a very spiritual guy, talked about the Bible a lot, but he really lives that in his everyday life. The hardest thing about trying to follow Collin is doing the right things off the field — not just talking, but also doing the walking.”
Sams said his focus is different now with Jake onboard and starting job within his grasp. The 6-foot-2, 207-pounder said this offseason has been his most productive yet.
“With Jake here, it’s a tossup — 50/50 — and we’re both hungry,” he said. “I took my off-the-field habits more seriously in terms of watching film and working on my mechanics as a thrower. When I was here with Collin, I wasn’t doing that much. I was just trying to learn the offense. I wasn’t really working on perfecting my craft.”
If last April’s spring game was any indication, Sams has taken big strides. Both he and Waters flung the ball up and down the field, racking up a combined 76 points and 855 yards of total offense, including 640 in the air. Sams was 20-of-31 passing for 413 yards and four touchdowns, while Waters completed 16-of-22 passes for 257 yards and three scores.
Waters, who received recruiting interest from Penn State, Texas and Alabama, said he thinks he’s come a long way since last spring. He said he’s been humbled.
“From the spring, its just the overall knowledge of the playbook,” said Waters, who broke Cam Newton’s single-season completion percentage record at Iowa Western. “When I first came in, I (understood) a little bit, but now I’m not thinking so much and just going out and playing.
“I feel like I’ve matured a lot too. It humbles you here when you have a bunch of good players, instead of just a select few at a JUCO.”
When comparing these two quarterbacks, it’s easy to say one is a runner and one is a passer. Just look at their respective numbers and that’s an easy trap to fall into. K-State offensive coordinator Dana Dimel said its not fair to either QB to say one to something and not another, and vice versa.
“We recruited these guys because they can both run and they can both pass,” he said. “We go and watch them throw. We don’t recruit guys who can’t throw. And some of the people who recruited Jake last year were running-quarterback teams… And to say Daniel can’t throw, isn’t a true statement either. They have a long way to go, but they both have a chance to do both very well.”
Waters admits Sams has him beat in a foot race. Nobody is disputing there is a difference in speed between the two quarterbacks. But it’s like Waters is a statue in the backfield either.
“We can do the same things, but in different ways,” Waters said. “He’s obviously a little bit faster than me — but I can run too… He can make every throw and every run, and I believe that I can do the same. It’s just different styles.”
Sams, who considered playing another position a couple years ago to get on the field sooner — until Snyder said no — said people just haven’t seen what both QBs can do.
“Yeah, I’m fast,” he said. “But at the same time, Jake can run too. K-State fans just haven’t seen that yet. There was a question of whether I can throw the ball. We both can do the same things — people just don’t know that yet.”