SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Asked Monday what he would tell his freshman self if given the chance, senior Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein offered this:
“Fasten your seatbelt. It’s going to be a wild ride.”
Perhaps he ought to offer that advice to Oregon’s freshman quarterback, Marcus Mariota, after the two teams meet in Thursday’s Fiesta Bowl.
The game features a beginning and an end as Mariota looks to build upon a stellar first season under center for the Ducks and Klein looks to cap a prolific career that most recently included a seat at the Heisman Trophy ceremonies.
“My time at Kansas State has definitely been a journey,” Klein said. “I’m not surprised with my time here or how we’ve ended up or how we’re going to finish out and all that kind of stuff — but could I have written it out for you the way it all happened and the ways it’s playing out? There’s no way in the world.”
The road to this point twisted and turned often for Klein, a Loveland, Colo., native whose only other scholarship offer out of high school was from Colorado State. As a redshirt freshman in 2009, Klein appeared in each of Kansas State’s games as a wide receiver or on special teams. It was coach Bill Snyder’s first season back in Manhattan after three years of retirement and a period of uncertainty for Klein.
Klein leaned on his faith to endure the uncertain time, and with the tutelage of co-offensive coordinator Del Miller, he got back on his chosen path as a quarterback. He earned spot duty as a sophomore, largely due to his mobility. He threw for just 138 yards and a touchdown but rushed for 432 yards and six scores.
With Miller’s help, Klein tweaked his throwing motion and in 2011 passed for 1,918 yards and 13 touchdowns, which only served to enhance his ability as a running threat — to the tune of 1,141 yards and a whopping 27 touchdowns. For all that, Klein gives much credit to Miller.
“He’s helped me so much in my knowledge of the game of football from top to bottom,” Miller said. “There’s no doubt I wouldn’t be the player I would be today if it wasn’t for his investment. I know early on he believed in me and supported me from the beginning.”
What made Miller believe in Klein most had little to do with his athletic ability or particular position on the field.
“Every year he’s grown as a leader, where now he’s such a strong leader of our football team,” Miller said. “It started by example because there isn’t anybody on our football team that works as hard as Collin on a regular basis. And now he’s just the kind of guy that brings other people with him — people follow him.”
For his senior season, Klein has accumulated 2,490 yards and 15 touchdowns through the air and 890 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground.
Miller calls Klein “the complete package” as an athlete with passing prowess, running ability, size — 6-foot-5 and 226 pounds — and sound decision making.
His wild journey from obscurity became complete when he landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
“It was a little bit surreal,” Klein said. “It will be something to look back at and remember. My kids will look at that someday and be like ‘Wow!'”
The one goal remaing for Klein is to add a BCS bowl victory to his resume — a victory that could lift the Wildcats to a No. 2 national ranking. Kansas State has not won a bowl game since the 2002 Holiday Bowl.
On the other sideline stands Mariota, a 6-foot-4 Honolulu native with incredible speed. His career is just getting started. After redshirting last season, Mariota beat out redshirt sophomore Bryan Bennett to start for the Ducks.
Mariota took quickly to Oregon’s lighting-fast offense, leading Oregon to 10 straight wins without even a single close game before the team’s sole loss to Stanford.
“We kind of tell our incoming freshman ‘Hey, put your foot on the gas, you’re playing, you’re going, full speed ahead,'” Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “I think more than anything we just tried to keep pushing his envelope.”
Added Oregon coach Chip Kelly: “It took him about a week to figure out what we do on the offensive side of the ball. He’s got a lot of special qualities.”
Mariota admits his head was spinning when he first took the reins in practice. He says the pace made him shake at first. But with his calm demeanor, which he credits to his upbringing in Hawaii, Mariota adjusted quickly.
“I think every game I’ve grown in my comfort level,” Mariota said. “I’m not sure if I’m 100 percent comfortable yet. I’m not sure I ever will (be). That’s what’s fun about it.”
Mariota threw for 2,511 yards and 30 touchdowns while leading the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and winning the conference’s Freshman Offensive Player of the Year award as well as First Team All Pac-12 honors. He added 690 yards and four TDs on the ground.
Now, Mariota has a chance to lead his team to a BCS win in his first season.
“You kind of dream of this, envision yourself having success like this,” Mariota said. “To be able to go out there and do it is a whole ‘nother thing. It’s been a fun process.”
Though somewhat surprised by his rapid success, Mariota says he’s always held himself to a high standard and expects to continue to improve, the prospect of which ought to frighten future opponents.
“I don’t think he’s going to be one of those guys that sits back and says ‘Look what I did,'” Helfrich said. “It will be ‘Look what I did at this point; what else is out there?’ As a coach, that’s exactly what you want.”
When all is said and done, the college careers of Mariota and Klein are certain to follow vastly different arcs, but they meet Thursday at the same place, with a common goal.
In one of the bowl season’s heavyweight matchups, eyes will be on the opposing quarterbacks. Rising star vs. established star. Rookie vs. veteran. They might not go head-to-head on the playing field, but the game seems likely to hinge on the performances of these two leaders.
“There’s no better way that I or any one of us would want to finish this season, especially the seniors, than to finish our careers with a win,” Klein said.
Said Mariota: “To have this season, to have the foundation, to have this bowl game, it really kind of just sets off the future. I think to be able to build off something like this, it’s pivotal for any quarterback.”