MANHATTAN — The star quarterback used to be a wide receiver, and the top wide receiver used to be a quarterback.
There are junior college players from the most out-of-the-way places imaginable, and Division I transfers getting a fresh start. Small-town high school stars from the Heartland, and a motley collection of talent overlooked by most of college football’s marquee programs.
This is No. 4 Kansas State, arguably the most diverse team in the country.
One of the best, too.
Listening to quarterback Collin Klein describe the hodge-podge that makes up the only unbeaten team in the Big 12, it’s as if the Heisman Trophy candidate is likening sagely coach Bill Snyder to the Statue of Liberty — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” as the Emma Lazarus poem goes, only this time it’s the overlooked and the underappreciated.
“We do come from pretty diverse parts of the country, diverse backgrounds, different roads that have brought us here,” Klein said. “I mean, it goes back to his formula of taking whoever is here and bringing us in and molding us together and creating a true team to where it doesn’t matter where you came from, how you got here, anything like that. What matters is now.”
Right now, the Wildcats are the hottest team in the country.
They’ve already won at Oklahoma and West Virginia. They’re 7-0 overall, 4-0 in the conference, and for once a favorite going into this weekend’s game against No. 15 Texas Tech.
Poring over the roster, though, this isn’t the kind of team that should be stacking up against top-ranked Alabama, high-flying Oregon or even high-profile Notre Dame.
The vast majority of these guys weren’t five-star prospects coming out of high school. Heck, most of them didn’t even arrive at Kansas State out of high school, instead going through a junior college for reasons ranging from academics to lack of interest the first time around.
Eight of the 11 starters on defense went that route, including All-American candidate Nigel Malone, the team’s top cornerback. Defensive tackle John Sua went to California’s Allan Hancock College, hardly a pipeline to national prominence, and defensive ends Meshak Williams and Adam Davis formed quite the pass-rushing tandem during their days at Hutchinson Community College.
Then there are the guys who were high-profile recruits but opted to go elsewhere, such as linebacker Arthur Brown, a semifinalist for the Butkus Award.
He had his choice of schools coming out of Wichita and opted for the sunshine and warm weather of Miami. When things didn’t go how he foresaw, Brown headed back to the often-overcast, usually blustery and far more frigid life of Flint Hills.
“We have guys from all over, guys from different backgrounds, and it definitely adds character to our team,” Brown said. “That’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the process.”
The offensive side of the ball is a similar collection of castoffs, misfits and guys who were never expected to compete for a national championship — at least, by people on the outside.
Certainly not by Snyder, though. He welcomed them with open arms.
Klein has emerged as one of the nation’s most valuable players — he had seven touchdowns in the 55-14 rout of West Virginia — after being largely overlooked coming out of high school in Loveland, Colo. His only other interest came from the likes of Colorado State and Utah.
Just how highly sought were his quarterback skills? Even the coaches at Kansas State turned him into a wide receiver when he first got on campus.
Chris Harper went precisely the opposite direction.
He was a coveted quarterback recruit coming out of high school, and ultimately chose the swagger of Oregon over the old-school approach of the Wildcats. He switched to wide receiver early in his career, and, after suffering a knee injury, ultimately decided to transfer to Kansas State for his sophomore season.
Now, he’s an NFL prospect and the team’s leading receiver.
“We have guys from all over,” fellow wide receiver Curry Sexton said. “That’s something our coaching staff has been able to do, bring in players from around the country that fit our program, what we do here, and I think that’s been important to our success.”
Wide receiver Tyler Lockett went to high school in Tulsa, Okla., but barely got a sniff from the Sooners. Running back John Hubert is from Waco, Texas, but the Longhorns didn’t bite.
Tight end Travis Tannahill wasn’t even among the top 10 players in Kansas coming out of high school, much less the country. Offensive linemen B.J. Finney is from tiny Andale, population 928. Fullback Braden Wilson is from Smith Center, a booming metropolis by comparison.
The one thread that ties them together? Their values, Snyder said — and their talent.
“The recruiting environment has turned upside down in regards to the timing. You look around right now and everybody has 25 commitments and the season’s not half over,” Snyder said. “You have to get to know them to see if they fit in.”
If they do, well, it doesn’t matter where they come from.