If there was such a thing as a Most Valuable Player award for college football, it might go to Kansas State senior quarterback Collin Klein.
No player has better defined his team and its success over the past couple of seasons than Klein, whose rapid improvement has coincided with Kansas State’s return to national prominence.
The 2011 season saw “Optimus Klein” score 27 rushing touchdowns while leading his team to a 10-3 record. The Wildcats were expected by many to take a step back in 2012. Instead, they are off to a 5-0 start and have their highest national ranking — fifth in the coaches poll — since the 2003 season.
Meanwhile, Klein has established himself as a legitimate candidate for the Heisman Trophy. He is currently second in the Heismanpundit/CBSSports.com Heisman Straw Poll, with a chance to further shake up the race two Saturdays from now when his team takes on Geno Smith and West Virginia.
While he’s a beast on the field, he’s as polite and soft-spoken as they come off the field. I caught up with Klein by phone on Tuesday for this brief Q & A:
You’ve improved so much the last couple years, especially from 2010 to 2011. What was your approach for making that happen?
There are a lot of elements that went into that. I’ve studied a lot of film, to try to be able to play faster mentally. You can only place the ball as fast as your mind can play. So that’s been a part of it. Coach Snyder and Coach [Del] Miller have spent a lot of time with me. I also spent some time with Terry Shea over the summer, working on footwork and shoulder and arm angles and things like that to make me more efficient and quicker in throwing the ball. And I think I’ve made some strides there. I think with throwing the ball, as a team, we are obviously better, but we’re still working on it. I think we’re still getting better as we speak. Credit to our wide receivers; we threw a lot of balls over the summer. A lot goes into it, a lot of work from everybody. We’re just trying to be the best we can possibly be.
Your completion percentage has improved dramatically, to 67 percent. Do you think that’s going to result in you throwing the ball more in the games to come?
That’s a great question. Each game is different. We’ll see. It’s always whatever we’ve got to do to win. Whenever we are called upon to throw the ball, we want to be successful, whatever the down and distance and situation is, and go from there. We’ll see. Some games are just interesting, you know?
Your clutch third-and-2 conversion against Oklahoma sealed the game. There seemed to be no doubt you’d convert. Describe your mentality going into a play like that.
I know my mentality, and I think our whole offense’s mentality is that “we’re going to get it.” You want your number to be called in that situation, and we were able to execute. We got a great push and got it done. You definitely want the ball in your hand in that situation and, collectively I’d say, “we” knew we were going to get it.
What brings you joy as a quarterback? Would you rather be sprinting out on a read option or hitting a deep ball?
Oh, my goodness. I really enjoy throwing the ball. I like being able to sit back there and play a chess game with the defense and dial up the right play and throw a strike. That’s a great feeling. But whatever it takes to win. Running the ball on third-and-2 to seal the game feels pretty good, too.
How are things different for you now that you are married? Do you have a new perspective to the game?
My priorities have not changed over this last year. My priorities have always been my faith first and my family second and obviously my teammates are included in that family. The family dynamic and landscape has obviously changed. It is a little different, but the priority and the focus is still exactly the same.
You grew up learning to play the piano, violin and mandolin. Do you still get a chance to work on your musical talents?
I really do still enjoy being able to play as much as I can. It’s not as much as I’d like these days with everything going on. Again, it’s something that I’ll be able to do forever. I’m very grateful that I had people investing in me growing up to be able to do that. It’s something I’ll have forever, and it’s a blessing.
What kind of music do you like to play? Have you ever written your own stuff?
A little bit of everything. Whatever I’m in the mood for. My favorite stuff is the gospel hymns. That music, I just love it and it’s a lot of fun. Kyle, my brother, is turning into a very good composer, but I don’t really have time to generate new stuff. I just relax with the stuff I already know.
Geno Smith is an artist, and you are a musician. Is there some benefit for a quarterback to have these artistic, very nonfootball-like skills?
I think they are great outlets to be able to discipline your mind, to be able to do something different. Those mental disciplines in practice are invaluable skills to have, and I think the diversity helps.
So, how does it feel to be considered for the Heisman?
It’s an honor to be considered for that award. Right now, though, my focus and my heart is to give back what the Lord has given me in talent and ability and desire to play this game. Whatever he brings at the end, I will be grateful and praise him all the more. So that’s kind of what I’m focusing on.
What would winning a Heisman mean to your school and the community?
Again, it would be a tremendous honor. I would love to be able to represent Kansas State and Manhattan. But we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. We’re just trying to take one step at a time.
Did you follow the Heisman growing up?
Oh, I did follow it growing up. I’ve always been a football fan, and that’s obviously a big part of it. I remember guys like Danny Wuerffel, Charles Woodson and Tim Tebow especially. It’s an amazing award.