Isaiah Zuber isn’t sure exactly how to view Saturday.
On one hand, Zuber said he wants to treat facing Kansas State — his former team — as he would any other week.
“I’m just looking at it as a normal week, even though I’m facing my teammates,” Zuber, who now plays for Mississippi State, told reporters Tuesday. “I don’t want this game feeling like, ‘I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that.’ It’s just a normal week, we’re just going to come out and face our opponent.”
Conversely, Zuber admitted this game — a nationally televised affair on ESPN which will kick off at 11 a.m. Saturday in Starkville, Mississippi — has been on his mind since the moment he joined the Bulldogs as a graduate transfer this summer.
“This game was always circled because I went there and everything,” Zuber said. “It’s going to be fun seeing my guys that I played with. It’s going to be competitive. I know they’re going to be talking some smack, so I’m probably going to talk some smack back.”
The Wildcats expect nothing less. Elijah Sullivan, a K-State linebacker and a Georgia native like Zuber, said he’s continued to talk to his former teammate “here and there” the last few months. Sullivan sent Zuber a congratulatory text following Mississippi State’s victory over Louisiana-Lafayette in Week 1. Sullivan can’t wait for a chance to chat with Zuber Saturday.
“We’re going to be out there talking,” Sullivan said. “That’s my boy, man.”
Malik Knowles, a redshirt freshman receiver for the Wildcats, still has a close relationship with Zuber. When Knowles spoke with reporters after last week’s win over Bowling Green, he said he wasn’t sure how much trash talk might come up in conversation between the two leading up to the game.
“It depends on if he starts it,” Knowles said. “Then we’ll go with it.”
For senior defensive tackle Trey Dishon, it will be a bittersweet meeting. Zuber would have been part of the Wildcats’ senior class this fall if he hadn’t left. But Dishon stressed that there’s no hard feelings on either side.
“Everybody wishes he was still here,” Dishon said, “but he’s on another team now, and we’ve got to go take care of business.”
Another member of K-State’s senior class agreed.
“It’ll be a little different to see him over on that sideline, just knowing that he was a part of the team,” center Adam Holtorf said. “But I think everybody is just focused and locked in to what their assignments need to be and aren’t going to let that distract them.”
Quarterback Skylar Thompson had a particularly close bond with Zuber, at least on the field. The pair connected for the game-winning touchdowns in back-to-back games at Bill Snyder Family Stadium: a last-second stunner against Iowa State to cap the 2017 regular season and a furious fourth-quarter rally to stave off an upset bid by South Dakota to open the 2018 campaign.
Thompson said it will be “fun” to face off with Zuber. At the same time, Thompson said he hadn’t given it much though, either.
“I’m sure there’ll be a point in time where we’ll all get a chance to talk to him,” Thompson said. “It’ll be weird. But that’s one of the least of my concerns right now. I’ve got a lot of other stuff I’m worried about — I wouldn’t say, ‘worried about,’ but ‘getting ready for,’ so it’ll be interesting. But I’m more so than anything just excited to go compete.”
K-State safeties coach Joe Klanderman, whose position group might have to help in some coverage situations against Zuber Saturday, said it helps that some of his players know what makes Zuber ticks. But he didn’t want to get caught up in focusing too much on the player who led the Wildcats in every major receiving category last season — and was expected to be a key cog in the passing game this fall.
“It’s just about doing your job,” Klanderman said. It doesn’t really make any difference who’s out there. It maybe is a little different because some of these guys are friends with him and whatever else. But I think at the end of the day, it’s just a jersey number.”
Scottie Hazelton expounded on that point, comparing it to his days in the NFL.
“You go on the field with the (Kansas City) Chiefs or something, they’re playing whoever there playing. Those guys went to college together,” said Hazelton, K-State’s defensive coordinator. “It’s the same thing (with Zuber). You usually go out there and say, ‘What’s up man? How you doing? Good.’ You shake hands and then you get on the field and, sure, there’s trash talk, but that happens every week, on every game, every person that you play.”
More emotions are involved, Hazelton said, because of Zuber’s past in Manhattan. His main concern is that the good-natured trash talk doesn’t potentially spill over into costly personal foul penalties.
“You hope that both sides just handle it professionally,” he said. “After the game, they’re all going to hug each other, they’re all going to take pictures together, they’re going to do all that because they’re all buddies. You would say sure, and heck, they might be laughing on the field. You never know. They might say something that’s funny, too. You never know what happens with that kind of stuff.”
Chris Klieman never coached Zuber in a game. In his first year as K-State’s head coach, Klieman started to develop a relationship with Zuber this spring. Yet it was one confined to mental reps, not physical ones; Zuber had surgery after last season concluded, which kept him from participating in any practices this spring.
“I wish him the best,” Klieman said. “I enjoyed my brief time with Isaiah.”
Knowles’ feelings run deeper. Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, his friendship with Zuber will remain.
“He’s a brother,” Knowles said, “for life.”