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May 1, 2009Rewind to a little more than a decade ago. Kansas State football was at its prime. Fans tailgated long before the annual Purple-White spring game, then showered players with a standing ovation afterward. Bill Snyder emerged from the outing carrying the belief that the on-field display was akin to "watching paint dry." In the fall, the 1998 team enjoyed its first undefeated regular season in school history. That was then. Saturday is now.
Five months have passed since Snyder retook his post and met with his team, which at last check included 48 returning lettermen, and informed players what would lie ahead for them in the spring. Fourteen practices, including two major scrimmages later, optimism runs rampant among a cast eager to please their legendary head coach, a veteran staff of assistants, and a fan base seeking tangible results they can chew on into the summer months.
"It's going to be nice letting them know that we're moving in the right direction," linebacker Alex Hrebec said. "We've been working hard to put on a show."
Snyder's rules of the spring won't change for the 3 p.m. kickoff at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. There was no hyped-up spring draft, Snyder assuredly won't spend the first half tucked inside a radio booth and there will be no running game clock. The No. 1 offense and No. 2 defense will primarily be paired against the No. 1 defense and No. 2 offense. Quarterbacks will call their own plays to an extent and be protected by rules and the defense won't blitz while remaining primarily in a 4-3 set. The players that happen to be on the field will also serve as the special teams units.
One other Snyder springism was his penchant to flip the score at halftime. He could do it again.
"It depends," he said. "If it's lopsided, we certainly will do that."
Some uncertainties still exist. For one, Snyder estimated that 10 players wouldn't participate in the game, without elaborating on the cause of their absence.
Snyder early in the week also hadn't decided whether he would empty the coaches' booth and assign all of his assistants to the sideline as to "coach it like a practice." Snyder contends individual instruction remains a strong ally for a squad that he admits, given its stage of development, might benefit more from an extra practice instead of a glorified scrimmage.
"You like to have that hands-on practice, which would mean everybody gets more reps and there's more teaching going on because you're right there, and being hands on, you have better control of it," Snyder said. "I like that environment and this is a team that needs that as much as possible. It's not that I don't like spring games, it's just that it kind of depends on what your needs are with your team.
"This team just needs to practice, practice, practice."
Snyder continues to learn -- no, make that "remember" -- on the job as well. He thought back to a recent coaches clinic at K-State in which Del Miller, the first assistant Snyder hired in 1989, shared a trick of the trade with high school coaches. Miller described one longtime custom in which K-State quarterbacks wore hot packs on their throwing shoulders during position meetings, and how quarterbacks and wide receivers were instructed to squeeze tennis balls to build muscle while their brains were also getting a workout in watching film.
"Again, I said, 'ahh-ha,'" Snyder recalled. "We just hadn't gotten to that (in the spring). We implemented that the next day. Stuff like that happens almost every day. Perhaps a day doesn't go by where something doesn't bring back a memory."
A day also doesn't go by that current players don't find themselves enamored by the program's past success under their legendary coach. Spotting a framed David Allen, Jonathan Beasley and Joe Gordon jersey in the Vanier Football Complex is one thing. Being around the former standouts -- Allen and Beasley are both graduate assistants while Gordon is recruiting operations director -- does nothing but add a little more fire, as players hope to one day be able to one day identify with their stories.
"(It's) just the idea that they're in the building and have a chance to interact with our players," Snyder said. "Here are 80 guys that don't really know me. They don't know the staff. They just hear stories. They don't know. (The former players in Vanier) is proof of the pudding."
Senior running back Keithen Valentine is sold.
"Being around David Allen and Jonathan Beasley, they demand the greatness," Valentine said. "The things they're teaching us are just bringing a better person and a better player out of me. I just love it. They're going to bring some great things out of me."
The up-and-down story of Valentine's short career started a year ago in the spring game, of course. The 5-foot-8, 193-pounder, then a walk-on, rushed for a team-high 104 yards on 15 carries. He is expected to be a starter on the No. 1 offense and jokingly believes there might have been a spring jinx in the works last season.
"My auntie was joking with me the other day, saying, 'Maybe you shouldn't do so well in the game this time,'" Valentine said. "We joked about that. I'm going to play hard like I know I can and just let everybody know that I can do this. I'm just going out there to prove myself again."
Junior quarterback Carson Coffman believes he has something to prove as well in his public debut as the top signal-caller in Snyder's offensive system.
"We want to show the fans that we're ready. We want to give them something to be excited about," Coffman said. "It's pretty important that we go out and perform well. I'm excited for Saturday. I want to show the fans what I can do."
Coffman called senior wide receiver Brandon Banks "probably the best player on our team." He said sophomore defensive end Brandon Harold is "always in the backfield and a tough player to stop."
While fans will hope their favorites issue impressive performances, Hrebec plans for the team to collectively illustrate to themselves the oft-repeated creed that Snyder has repeated throughout his career.
"Coach always presses us on getting a little better every day," Hrebec said. "Just get a little bit better every day and don't look too far down the road. Work on the little things, you know, and the long run will take care of itself.
"What kind of foundation are we building? We're going to work hard and be committed. It all starts from there."
Yes, it all starts on Saturday, on the field and under game-type conditions and in front of spectators for the first time.
Junior wide receiver Lamark Brown understands the playbook might be a little vanilla in this dress rehearsal. Work will continue into the summer months. The season opener against Massachusetts on Sept. 5 still feels a ways away.
Yet Brown also sympathizes with those fans yearning for signs of hope on an expectedly sunny May afternoon.
"A lot of people expected things from us and we didn't go out and perform like we should have last year," Brown said. "I know the fans have been waiting for us to come out here and put on a show and we haven't (done that). You know, it's been a long offseason and to tell you the truth, we're ready to start playing again.
"We just need to go out and show the fans what they're going to see all season."
And what does Brown expect for the Wildcats to show in the fall?
"Basically, that this is a team that can go out there and win the Big 12 Championship no matter what," he said. "There might be a lot of talk about the other teams in the North. Well, we have a good enough team to go out there and compete with anybody."
Some call it a mere scrimmage. For Brown, five months ago the annual outing became a red-letter date.