The start of fall camp was evident outside the Vanier Football Complex on Monday afternoon. Light from the sweltering sun danced across rows of vehicles baking in the parking lot, the collective gleam a certain attention-grabber to motorists along Kimball Avenue. Hardly a parking spot was unoccupied. Think the 106-degree temperature was hot? Imagine the inferno stewing inside meeting rooms as the Wildcats prepared for the start of fall camp. In less than a month, the squad really looks to sizzle.
"This has gone by fast," quarterback Josh Freeman said. "The season is right around the corner. You can never have enough time to prepare for that first game, but the time that you do have, you've got to put to good use."
Seems like in the span of four wind sprints, the Wildcats will officially put last season's 5-7 season behind them with their 2008 opener against North Texas at Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Aug. 30. But spend a little time with the Wildcats, who spent most of their bowl-less offseason racketing-up the heat in the weight room and in conditioning drills, and they distanced themselves from 2007 long ago.
K-State returns 42 lettermen, including 11 players on offense and defense who made at least six starts last season. Twenty-eight returners started at least once. Combined with 15 junior college transfers who are expected to participate in fall camp – "(They lack) Big 12 experience, but they're definitely not inexperienced," K-State coach Ron Prince said prior to camp – the Wildcats enter with experience in their two-deep.
According to the K-State media guide, the squad includes 45 juniors and 24 seniors. What the media guide doesn't include is the number of those players who are expected to step-up in production and in leadership. Already around here, "leadership" and "production" have become the buzzwords for the fall.
K-State will need plenty of both in a schedule that features a road date at Louisville (Sept. 17 on ESPN2) and contests against four of the five Big 12 teams ranked in eight preseason polls through July. The Wildcats open their league season against Texas Tech at home on Oct. 4. They will face Oklahoma at home on Oct. 25, then visit Kansas on Nov. 1 and Missouri on Nov. 8. After K-State plays the Tigers, of course, it returns home to battle Nebraska, which embarrassed the Wildcats 73-31 last season.
"Guys who lead clearly have to be good players. That's sometimes overshadowed by personality," Prince said. "The truth is, a lot of times you hear a coach say, 'We had good senior leadership but we didn't have great senior leadership.' Truth is, if your seniors are good players and they've very invested in the success of the team, then you're probably going to have good leadership."
The 38-year-old Prince enters his third season at 12-13 overall with the Wildcats, who are projected to finish in fifth-place in the Big 12 North Division this season.
"Clearly, we didn't get in the situation we were in overnight," Prince said. "It's just a matter of us working our plan so that we never go back to where we just had come from."
While 14 current seniors made at least one start last season, Prince continues to take steps with some unsightly knowledge at hand. Research indicates that of the 26-member scholarship post-Big 12 championship recruiting class in 2004, only seven – tight end Brett Alstatt, safety Cedric Wilson, defensive end Vlad Faustin, place-kicker Jared Parker, and offensive linemen Jordan Bedore, Brad Rooker and Gerard Spexarth – remained on the 2008 roster prior to training camp.
Only four others in the 2004 class – wide receiver Yamon Figurs, defensive end Tearrius George, and defensive backs Maurice Porter and Kyle Williams – completed their eligibility at K-State.
A look at the contribution by each senior class in terms of starts in each season:
Started every gm
Senior/ Team starts
% senior starts
As for the other 15 scholarship signees in the class? They were either academic non-qualifiers, transferred, or, in some cases due to individual circumstance, were shown the door.
Senior Ian Campbell wasn't listed in the class because he arrived as a walk-on. The 6-foot-5, 260-pounder and two-time co-captain looks to become the first K-State player ever to earn first-team All-Big 12 honors in three consecutive seasons.
"Ian Campbell symbolizes what Kansas State is all about," Freeman said. "He's one of the hardest-working guys I've ever seen."
Freeman, a junior, hopes for a better showing by this senior class.
"I don't remember how many seniors we had that actually contributed last year but it's tough to win when you don't have a lot of seniors contributing," Freeman said. "I remember waling out on Senior Day (a 49-32 loss to No. 6 Missouri) and probably 80 percent of the seniors didn't play 10 snaps throughout the season. It's going to be nice to have a veteran team, a team with experience, come out and show what they've got."
A glance at the chart illustrates the "senior slippage" in terms of the percentage of senior starts between 2003 and last season. A total of 13 seniors contributed to 106 of 264 total starts (40.1 percent) and nine seniors started in at least seven games last season, but with respect to Freeman's disdain: point taken.
Of course, it's uncertain to what extent this senior class will contribute in the fall. To that end, Prince believes the Wildcats experienced junior class will be critical as well.
RETURNING STARTS SENIORS
Jordan Bedore, OL
Gerard Spexarth, OL
Alesana Alesana, OL
Deon Murphy, WR
Penisini Liu, OL
Cedric Wilson, WR
Brad Rooker, OL
Ernie Pierce, WR
Brett Alstatt, TE
Ian Campbell, DE
Reggie Walker, LB
Gary Chandler, S
Andrew Erker, S
Ray Cheatham, CB
Brandon Balkcom, DT
Chris Patterson, OLB
RETURNING STARTS JUNIORS
Josh Freeman, QB
Jeron Mastrud, TE
Nick Stringer, OL
Brock Unruh, OL
Trevor Viers, OL
Eric Childs, DE
Chris Carney, S
Courtney Herndon, S/LB
"What we have is a very strong class of junior players who have not redshirted – Chris Carney, Jeron Mastrud, Josh Freeman and Joshua Moore," Prince said. "That group of kids who came in that first recruiting class are now in a position to have an effect positively in how a game turns out. Instead of just being a feel-good story, a young guy who's playing in games, now they have a chance. They've been to the stadiums and have been home and on the road with all of the teams in our division. They're in a position to really help us win and to be the reason that you're winning. That's what we're hoping for.
"The other part of it is we're going to have some seniors in some key spots, some of them are guys who came from high school like Ian, Bedore, Spexarth, Reggie Walker (listed with the 2005 class), and Chris Bamberger on special teams, but you're also going to see the junior college guys that we brought in – Gary Chandler, Alesana Alesana, Ben Liu, Antwon Moore – where this is their time. They really need to play well and really be complements to that junior class and really show those guys how you win."
Put the senior and junior classes together and Prince believes the Wildcats have a recipe for success.
"Truth is, that senior class hasn't had a lot of success in their careers. They've had one bowl game," Prince said. "How that all fits together and how they are able to lead the team will be important. We'll be able to analyze that really easily going into November. The reason from a tactical standpoint that we should be able to do a lot of the things that we want to do is because we'll have a terrific number of juniors and when you add that to the 20-21 seniors we have, at least half of them will play a pretty prominent role. We should have a lot of veteran players. The Ian Campbells and Josh Moores will be key to how we do once we get into conference play."
Senior defensive tackle Brandon Balkcom indicates there's a we're-all-in-this-together approach in directing the 2008 season.
"Everybody is like that," he said. "Nobody wants to lose. This season, there's no reason we should have a season like last season with the people we have with the returners, the newcomers we have coming in and with the speed we have on this team. There's no way at all we should have that (record) again. We know what we have. We know the kind of coaches we have and the kind of players we have. We're working to be better."
No player might be counted upon more than Freeman, whose sophomore season was littered with considerable exploits and featured four school season passing records, including attempts (499), completions (316), passing yards (3,353) and 300-yard passing games (four). Absent of accolades, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Freeman considers himself to be the best quarterback in the Big 12, and told Powercat Illustrated in June that he helped to clean up the locker room during the offseason.
"In the past, we've had a number of guys holding us back as far as being a cancer in the locker room, not working, just taking a lackadaisical approach to everything," Freeman told PI. "Really, we're trying to train as many leaders as we can and just have a really strong peer-pressure and a culture in our locker room where if you're not doing something, everybody should be coming down on you."
K-State suffered two off-field incidents during the offseason. Two juniors – running back Leon Patton and linebacker John Houlik – had a run-in with the law and remain suspended indefinitely from the team.
But the Wildcats' apparent chemistry and effort during the offseason cannot be ignored.
"It's been fun working out this year," Freeman said. "Our quarterback group works out with the offensive line and it's been great to learn even more about those guys and watch their development and how hard they're working.
"I haven't been around an offseason (where players) have worked as hard as this one. These guys are working."
A year ago at this time, Freeman was the focus of criticism after he failed to pass the program's required pre-camp conditioning test. Instead of addressing the upcoming season at the team's media day, Freeman fielded a multitude of questions regarding his weight and playing condition.
Not this time. K-State reported that all but three players passed the test on their first try last week. Bedore and defensive linemen Raphael Guidry and Xzavier Stewart didn't make the grade on their first attempt. But Bedore and Guidry passed the test on their second try Monday. Stewart will be given the opportunity to retake the conditioning test every day and will be permitted to return to practice immediately upon reaching a passing score.
A theme emerged during the offseason, too: Lead, follow, or get out of the way.
"For the most part," Bedore said, "everybody is going to be in the first two categories, hopefully."
"It creates a good feeling," Campbell said. "If somebody messes up and it's not a one-time thing, then it's very easy for people to join together and say, 'You're either with us or against us,' and when you have 100 guys doing that to one guy, most likely he's going to want to be a part of the pack. If he doesn't, he shouldn't be here. It should be that way at every program.
"We've got a lot of young guys one board and ready to do whatever it takes. You should see the sincerity in these guys' eyes whenever I talk to them."
Campbell has been here before and understands the off-the-cuff criticism that ensues upon making such a statement. But still, he won't layoff on his assessment entering fall camp.
"This is the best offseason I've been a part of in four years," he said. "People talk all the time and every year you hear the same thing, 'Our chemistry is great,' and 'We're like a family,' and, well, it's like a bunch of adopted kids. Coach Prince talks about how football is the toughest team sport not because of the hitting but because you get 100 guy from different walks of life, different tribulations and different beliefs, to have one common cause. It's a difficult thing. (Prince) said the closest thing you can relate it to is the military. But the difference is, we're playing a game. It's not real life like that.
"But still, you have a common cause."
On Monday that cause brought the Wildcats together at the Vanier Football Complex.
It was blistering outside. Temperature readings were assuredly in the red.
Inside those meeting rooms, the anticipation for Aug. 30 was probably off the charts as well.