Kansas State knows Skylar Thompson will start at quarterback this fall. Beyond that, nothing is certain.
The Wildcats have five players — Nick Ast, Bart Harris, Will Howard, Jaren Lewis and Max Marsh — taking snaps behind Thompson. Realistically, however, only three are competing for the backup job: Ast, Howard and Lewis.
“There have been ups and downs by each one of those guys behind Skylar,” said quarterbacks coach and K-State great Collin Klein, who knows a thing or two about great play at the position. “Nick Ast has probably been the most consistent, just from the reps he got last year and his maturity and age in the program. Will Howard has shown great flashes. Just having nine practices under his belt, he’s really done some impressive things with every small thing, from huddle management to play calls to being assignment sound and then being able to make plays with his arm from the pocket. Obviously, he has good size and athleticism. Jaren Lewis has done some good things. Great arm talent. Has been up and down consistency wise, but he’s shown some good things.”
Klein spoke (virtually) with reporters Aug. 20. If the opener against Arkansas State was the next day, he said Ast “probably” would get the nod as the No. 2 behind Thompson.
“But again,” Klein said, “it’s been up and down as things have progressed.”
Offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham’s evaluation of the battle was much the same as Klein’s. He said he feels “really good” about the trio vying for the job, with each bringing their own strengths to the fore.
“Will Howard has obviously come in and done pretty much exactly what we anticipated that he would having him be here in the spring,” Messingham said. “Hurt that we didn’t have spring ball, but it was extremely good for him that he got to know our players and coaches. He got to understand a little bit about our culture, and that’s helped him. Jaren Lewis being a second-year (player) here, he really has started to show some of the things we anticipated he would bring to the table when he got here. Nick (Ast) has done a really good job of continuing to learn. He understands that Skylar is ‘the guy’ but has attacked it like he’s truly one play away from needing to be that guy that can be a player for us, not just handle the offense, but can make plays. That’s what we really want: We want three guys having a great competition to be that backup, all of us understanding that Skylar is the guy that is going to be the driver right now.”
That Ast is the the favorite to win the backup spot is no revelation; he was next-in-line last year, too. What was more surprising is that Howard, an early enrollee, seemingly has pushed past Lewis, who redshirted in 2019. At nearly every opportunity last year, Klein praised Lewis’ progress, noting that the then-true freshman wasn’t making it easy on Ast. As Klein recalled, “it really varied by the day” as 2019 campaign went on.
“Some days it was really close and some days we felt Nick’s experience really gave him the edge,” Klein said April 16, “which is why he stayed in that No. 2 position. I think the longer that competition goes, the better they’ll both get.”
Though there’s still time before the Sept. 12 opener versus Arkansas State arrives, Klein said he won’t let the competition drag on — and needlessly split snaps during practice — if one signal-caller already has separated himself.
“If it’s clear cut, then obviously that second guy is going to get more reps,” he said. “It’s always a competition. Every snap from the day they get here is going to be evaluated. Every meeting is being evaluated. Every interaction with their teammates (is being evaluated). So that competition, regardless of where they’re at, is constantly going. I tell them the story of years where we’ve been, three-, four-deep at that position and had that guy have to play. You’ve just got to be ready regardless of when that is.”
That’s never changed. Klein wants all of the players in his meeting room to carry himself as if he’s the starting quarterback, even if it’s Thompson’s job for now.
“You’ve got to prepare like you’re the starting quarterback and (like) you’re competing for that job,” he said. “You never know when your day is going to come. That’s the life of a quarterback. I always thought it was harder to back up than it was to start, because you never knew when (someone would say), ‘Hey, get in the game. You’ve got to grab your helmet. Go!’”
In those moments, the pressure only intensifies, particularly as it pertains to a quarterback’s standing among his teammates.
“Those windows are small, because the trust of your team, that’s so important and so fragile. When your number is called on, if you’re not ready and don’t answer, sometimes that’s a hard thing to earn back,” Klein said. “That’s what I told them. They’ve been doing a great job. ... I’m excited to see how it all shakes out, but they’ll all be ready to go.”