Chris Klieman inherited a Kansas State football program in need of a rebuild.
In starting quarterback Skylar Thompson, though, the first-year Wildcat head coach at least has what he believes to be a player capable of setting the foundation for that overhaul.
“The most important thing we need to do (on offense) is get the ball into the playmakers’ hands, and for us it starts with our quarterback,” Klieman said earlier this month at Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas. “I’m excited to have Skylar Thompson, who I recruited four years ago and offered him a scholarship at North Dakota State. So I was excited when I had the opportunity to meet him that I’m going to get a chance to be a part of his life and coach him.”
As ecstatic as Klieman is to have Thompson in his life, the inverse is perhaps even truer.
For the first time in his Wildcat career, the redshirt junior Thompson enters a season without any uncertainty — after back-to-back campaigns playing hot potato with Alex Delton for the starting quarterback role, Thompson doesn’t have to worry about an extended battle ahead of the team’s 6 p.m. Aug. 31 season opener against Nicholls State at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan. With Delton now at TCU, Klieman didn't hesitate to proclaim Thompson the Wildcats' guy.
That early victory, Thompson said, has already made a world of difference this offseason.
“I’ve been having a lot of confidence and I haven’t looked over my shoulder or been afraid to make a mistake. I think that’s something I haven’t done since I’ve been here at K-State,” Thompson said. “I’ve always been afraid to make a mistake and kind of walking on eggshells whenever I’m out there because I was always competing with somebody or somebody was breathing down my neck. Now that that’s not really the case, it’s given me a lot of confidence and allowed me to go out there and just play ball and have fun and play free, and that’s allowed me to make plays.”
Ownership of the starting role has also inspired the 6-foot-2, 212-pounder out of Independence, Mo., to devote much of his free time to pouring over both the Wildcats’ new offense and his own performance from the last two seasons — “I’ve watched everything you could possibly watch, and then some,” Thompson said. The new scheme will look “a lot different” to Wildcat fans — Thompson under center more often, an increased number of pre-snap reads, and personnel packages not often deployed in the Big 12.
“I’m trying to learn as much as I can and pick up as much as possible, and I’ve made so many strides in the right direction,” Thompson said. “But with any offense, there’s always more. There’s always more you can grow and expand on, and there’s no time to be complacent or be comfortable because there’s always more out there.”
Thompson threw for 1,391 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions last season, completing 58.7 percent of his pass attempts. He also racked up 373 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, and while that’s a key aspect of his game, Thompson’s goal this season is to have a better feel for when to take off.
“I think one of my best skillsets is extending a play when it breaks down and finding people open, and I’ve been able to do that a lot this spring,” Thompson said. “But I’ve also realized kind of looking back at my old tape from last year and the year before that, there’d be times when I’d get out of the pocket too quick and get kind of freaked out there when there wasn’t nothing coming and I could hang in there and make a throw instead of scrambling.”
Klieman’s recent track record of sending successful quarterbacks to the next level — Carson Wentz was a first-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, while Easton Stick was a fifth-round pick this spring — has Thompson giddy, as does the “privilege and ownership” those quarterbacks received in the offensive scheme.
“I feel like my skillset really plays well into how they played,” Thompson said of Wentz and Stick. “They both could throw the ball but were athletic guys who could run. In this offense, we’re going to do both. They’re going to run the quarterback and they’re going to throw. The quarterback is going to be the center of the offense, of how it’s going. ...
“That’s been my dream my entire life, to play at the next level. With coach Klieman and his résumé of this offense and the play style and the language, it’s going to prepare me of that opportunity if I ever get blessed enough to have that opportunity.”
First, though, comes Thompson’s junior campaign, a season he’s bullish on — even if outsiders aren’t. The Wildcats were projected to finish ninth in the Big 12.
“Looking at that preseason poll, I was honestly kind of upset we weren’t 10th. I think our team was as well,” Thompson said. “Preseason poll, preseason predictions, that’s just something we have no control over. No control over. I think everybody on our football team including myself knows what we have inside our locker room — the type of talent we have, the type of returning players and experience that we have on our football team — and know what we’re capable of doing.
“For me it’s just going into this season knowing that I’m the guy, I’m the starting quarterback and our team knows that. I think it’s lifted our offense up and has taken it to another level and given us a confidence we really needed. I’m looking forward to putting a product on the field and showing everybody what we’re capable of doing and not just talking about it.”