MANHATTAN, Kan. — It sometimes resembles musical chairs, the way that Kansas State coach Bill Snyder has begun to use contrasting quarterbacks Jake Waters and Daniel Sams.
Waters heads onto the field for the first series. Sams replaces him. Waters goes back out when the Wildcats need a spark. Sams does the same thing.
It’s the kind of substitution pattern that happens regularly with running backs and wide receivers, but not quarterbacks — not the most critical guy on the field, the one who calls all the plays and touches the ball on every snap and often decides whether a team wins or loses.
The oddest thing about the system? It’s working.
“We’ve had I don’t know how many games we’ve done it, and in practice,” Waters said. “At first it takes some getting used to, but now we’re comfortable with it. We kind of expect it, so we can prepare ourselves better for it.”
Make no mistake: Waters wants to be the man. So does Sams, for that matter. There’s something to be said for being the No. 1 quarterback for a Big 12 program. The big man on campus.
But they also know that neither is going anywhere soon, so they might as well adapt.
“We just stay with each other the whole time, keep our head in the game,” Sams said. “So when we get in, we’re in a rhythm. I don’t feel like either one of us is ever off balance.”
That’s a big change from the way things were earlier in the season.
Waters is by far the better thrower, Sams the better runner, but neither so much better at one than the other that it made sense to stick with just one guy. So the first six weeks of the season were a struggle as Waters and Sams — and yes, Snyder as well — tried to figure out the best way to make the creative two-quarterback system work.
In the season opener against North Dakota State, Waters played nearly the entire way, and showed a big arm but questionable running ability. Sams carried twice and didn’t throw a pass.
It was a similar situation in wins over Louisiana-Lafayette and Massachusetts, and even in a loss to Texas, when Sams again didn’t attempt a pass. Then in a game against Baylor, when Kansas State’s top wide receivers were hurt, the split skewed the other direction. Sams wound up running for 199 yards and three touchdowns as Waters struggled to throw the ball.
The result of all those growing pains was an inefficient offense that contributed heavily to the defending Big 12 champions’ surprising 2-4 start – 0-3 in league play.
But during a week off in the schedule, the kinks seemed to get worked out.
Snyder seemed to figure out the best way to utilize both quarterbacks. Waters and Sams seemed to figure out how to stay in tune to the game. The rest of the offense seemed to realize that both of the guys taking turns under center just might give them the best opportunity to win.
In their first game out of the bye, Waters and Sams combined to go 18 of 21 for 291 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions against West Virginia. They also added 71 yards rushing in the kind of comprehensive 35-12 victory that was reminiscent of last season.
“Whenever he’s out there, I’m looking at what they’re doing defensively,” Waters said, “so when I go in, I can take advantage of what I see, and tell Daniel what I see. When he’s in and I’m out, I’m getting every mental rep and still playing the game mentally.”
Last week against Iowa State, the duo combined to go 13 of 20 for 221 yards and a touchdown, while running for 89 yards and another score. The result was a 41-7 romp.
Proof that the system is working, too.
“Things are starting to turn for us, and starting to go the way we want them to go,” wide receiver Tyler Lockett said. “Now we have to remember how we got here. That’s the important part.”
As the Wildcats (4-4, 2-3 Big 12) embark on the final four-game stretch, which will decide whether they go to a bowl game, Waters and Sams know that their play will be crucial.
The stretch starts at No. 25 Texas Tech (7-2, 4-2) on Saturday, includes games against TCU and No. 10 Oklahoma, and finishes up with a rivalry game at Kansas.
“We were so close at the beginning of the year,” Waters said, “and we’re finally starting to put the pieces together a little bit, and that’s giving us confidence.”