ARLINGTON, Texas — Skylar Thompson doesn’t say it with a hint of rudeness or arrogance. It comes across as open and honest.
Describing how difficult last season was, he said, is one thing. But to truly understand it, he said you would have to be in a similar situation.
Such is life in the fishbowl being a quarterback at a high-profile football school. That’s doubly true when a battle for the starting job seemingly never ends. Unlike some competitions that wrap up long before the opener, Thompson split time with Alex Delton well into the 2018 season for Kansas State. And it was no game-by-game alteration. Sometimes, the substitution would be half by half, or even drive by drive.
Little rhyme or reason seemed to be involved, which made it all the more exhausting on Thompson, especially mentally.
“It got to the point last season where it was just tough,” he said. “I don’t know how else to put it. It was just tough. We weren’t winning games. We were rotating quarterbacks. I was in a situation where I was like, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ or ‘What can I do better?’ Just so many different questions and it caused me to question a lot about myself and not have confidence going out there.”
Thompson and Delton roomed together. The night before games, he said the pair would have “a lot of deep conversations.” The gist: They just wanted clarity. Finality. Anything was better than the unknown they faced every week.
“We just got to the point where we were like, ‘Man, I just wish one of us would just get it, and then I’ll have to live with it,’ because it was draining and tiring for us to rotate and go through all that,” Thompson said. “It’s hard on both on us.”
As if that weren’t enough, Thompson revealed he had a myriad of injuries to push through last fall. It began almost immediately. In August, Thompson said he suffered a sports hernia and played through it all season. Then as the season wound down, he had a concussion. Compounding that pain was how the Wildcats closed out the campaign. Needing a win in the regular-season finale at Iowa State to ensure bowl eligibility, K-State couldn’t hold on to a 17-point fourth-quarter lead. The Cyclones scored 21 unanswered points to hand the Wildcats a stunning 42-38 defeat. It was the last game Bill Snyder ever coached for K-State. Thompson took it personally that the Wildcats failed to extend their bowl streak — and potentially extend the Snyder tenure for at least one more game.
It was merely one disappointment in a season filled with them.
“I envisioned last year being my first year starting and (that we would) probably make a bowl game and do all this stuff,” Thompson said. “All of that didn’t happen. It was just a series of events where we were all over the place. It kind of just got me off path, for sure, and had me questioning a lot of things that I hadn’t been experiencing — some thoughts and beliefs in myself that I really hadn’t experienced before.”
After all that adversity, however, came a silver lining.
The hire of Chris Klieman came as a godsend for Thompson. Klieman had offered him a scholarship at North Dakota State. So Thompson said his new coach already knew who he was and liked his skillset.
“I knew that played in my favor,” Thompson said.
From the moment he arrived in Manhattan, Klieman made sure Thompson knew he had his full backing. It’s exactly what Thompson needed to hear.
“The amount of impact he’s had on my life already is through the roof, both on and off the field,” Thompson said. “He has truly changed my life in so many different aspects and has gotten me back to where I’m believing in myself and I’m having so much confidence, I’m having fun playing the game. And it’s just awesome. Like, I don’t know how else to put it. I just see every day is an opportunity to get better.”
They talk constantly. It’s a matter of trust. Klieman said he wants to make sure Thompson knows there will be no repeat of last season, when a quick hook always was on the horizon. From the end of the spring until now, Klieman said Thompson has prepared as well as any quarterback he’s ever coached. That group includes NFL star Carson Wentz and Klieman’s last national-title winning signal-caller at North Dakota State, Easton Stick.
“The continued conversations that we have had and continue to have (consist) of, ‘We’re going to give you the keys and you’ve got to come to us with great questions. We’re going to come to you with great answers. It’s going to be a give and take,’” Klieman said. “I don’t worry about Skylar.”
It’s almost impossible for Thompson to put into words how much things have changed since last season.
“You’re just not looking over your shoulder every play, every drive — just, everything,” he said. “It was crazy how that went down. I don’t think people really realize how difficult it was for Alex and I both. But I feel like him and I both handled the best we possibly could.”
Should Thompson ever doubt himself this fall, he’ll have to answer to Klieman. The coach told him that, in no uncertain terms, at the conclusion of spring practice.
“He was like, ‘You know, you’re my guy. You’re the leader of this team, and I’m going to give you the keys to go run it. And I’m not going to hold you back. I will let you go play. Your best football is ahead of you. And if I ever catch (you looking) over your shoulder, second-guessing yourself, we’re going to have a lot of issues,'” Thompson recalled Klieman saying. “And I think that just says a lot about Coach Klieman and the type of person he is and the way he’s embraced this transitioning with me and fully putting his entire heart and belief into me. It goes a long ways.”
Thompson said perhaps the lone positive that the struggles of last season provide is that he now views everything he does through the prism of opportunity. Simply being able to play football he said, is “a blessing” from God. And Thompson plans to use it as a tool.
“It can be taken away from me at any given point in time,” Thompson said. “That’s what’s been more relevant to me than ever is just how much of a gift this game is and how it’s going to come to an end someday.”
It’s a mentality that Thompson admits once was foreign to him. As a younger player, football was everything — the only thing. If he wasn’t doing well on the field, he said, he “wasn’t doing well as a person.” Now he’s put those burdens aside.
He feels unshackled from mental chains.
“The rest is what’s important,” he said. “That has freed my soul so much as far as the way I play the game. Just have fun. I go out there and play free and not worry about making a mistake. That’s what’s given me so much confidence and why I’m so, so excited for the season that lies ahead.”