MANHATTAN — The nation’s sack leader doesn’t play in the Southeastern Conference, nor did he play prep football in some hotbed such as Florida or Texas that churns out Division I prospects.
No, Ryan Mueller went to a small high school in Kansas, and is now a star for Kansas State.
The junior defensive end from the Leawood, Kan., had three sacks in last week’s win over Texas Tech, giving him 10½ for the season. He also leads all Division I players with 15 tackles for loss, helping to pace a vastly improved Kansas State defense.
“What you’re seeing is the direct result of how hard Mueller works,” said center B.J. Finney, who has had to attempt to block him in practice. “Mueller is a very hard worker, he’s a great guy and he doesn’t take any day for granted. He doesn’t take a day off. His motor is always running and he’s always screaming, hooping and hollering.”
He earned a reputation for that at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, where he was the Kansas City metro’s defensive player of the year as a senior. But those accolades didn’t translate into scholarship offers, so Mueller elected to walk on at Kansas State.
It turned out to be a blessing for the Wildcats (5-4, 3-3 Big 12). The first-year starter is just one sack behind the school’s single-season record of 11½, set first by Nyle Wiren in 1996 and matched by Ian Campbell in 2005.
“His relentless to get in the backfield and get the quarterback or whoever is in the backfield,” linebacker Jonathan Truman said. “It’s just an attitude that he has that nothing is going to stop him when the ball is snapped.”
In a narrow loss to fourth-ranked Baylor, when Kansas State held the high-flying Bears to roughly half their season average for points, Mueller turned in one of the more impressive plays that folks will ever see. He sacked quarterback Bryce Petty while stripping the ball and then recovering it on his own — not a bad way to fill up the stat sheet.
It’s not common for Bill Snyder to complement his players individually. He prefers to talk about the team as a whole. But then again, Mueller’s success is hard to ignore.
“Nobody practices harder than Ryan Mueller,” Snyder said. “Nobody.”
But the response that Mueller offered to such kind words spoke volumes about the leadership role he’s adopted on the team, and proved that he’s learning to adopt Snyder’s mindset.
“I’d rather have Coach say, ‘I’ve never had a team practice like I’m coaching right now,’” Mueller said. “That’d be a bigger compliment for me personally.”
The Wildcats struggled defensively early in the season, and were roundly criticized for their inability to stop North Dakota State in the closing minutes of the opener. The result was a game-winning drive by the Bison and an embarrassing loss to a lower-level program.
But as the defense has improved, so has Mueller’s production.
He’s had eight of his 10½ sacks over the last five games, including at least one in each of them, and Kansas State has rattled off three consecutive wins to get into bowl contention.
The Wildcats can become eligible with a win over TCU on Saturday.
Not bad for a kid who didn’t have a scholarship offer coming out of high school, a kid who was viewed by many as undersized and not athletic enough to compete in a BCS conference.
Not bad for a kid who had just 17 tackles, and 2½ sacks his first two seasons.
“Ryan is one of those players that no matter what he does, no matter if he does it right or wrong, he’s going to go fast,” safety Dante Barnett said. “He will never quit on a play.”