Bill Snyder has a knack for finding the best-kept secrets, just ask Collin Klein or Darren Sproles.
Jake Waters is the next one you'll be asking about.
Waters has been successful everywhere he's gone. In high school, he won two state titles and went 37-2 as a starter. He won a national title at Iowa Western Community College, and he became the first quarterback since 2002 to win a bowl game at Kansas State.
So why has Waters been so overlooked in his career?
Well, in high school, he was a three-sport star at a small-town school in Council Bluffs, Iowa, an area not seen as a hot-bed for blue chips.
So in the age of recruitment rankings, Waters was never able to fully commit himself to the recruiting process.
"Because he was a three-sport star he wasn’t able to go to all these camps," said Scott Strohmeier, Waters' head coach at Iowa Western. "He felt a little bit that people were missing out on him. They thought he didn’t play high enough level of ball.”
Iowa Western gives Waters a chance
Waters was forced to go to JUCO route to pursue his football career. Scott Strohmeier noticed immediately that Waters came into his team with something to prove.
"Once he got here, he had a chip on his shoulder," Strohmeier said.
In his first season at Iowa Western, Waters went 9-2 with the Reivers. But he was still getting adjusted to the college game that first year in 2011.
So Waters decided to fully dedicate himself to football for the first time in his life—pouring over film and attacking the weight room.
"He prepares the way Peyton Manning prepares. That’s the approach he took," Strohmeier said.
After his first season, the dam blew and Waters exploded.
The Reivers went undefeated and won the NJCAA National Title in 2012. He was the National Player of the Year and set the national JUCO record for completion percentage (73.3 percent), a mark previously held by Heisman winner and NFL superstar Cam Newton.
Still overlooked, Waters chooses Snyder
Christian Corona of The Dallas Morning News called Waters the nation's best JUCO quarterback after that 2012-13 season. But still, according to 247sports, Waters was rated as just a three-star prospect. His only three offers from BCS conference schools were from Kansas State, Penn State and Houston.
"He was under recruited," Strohmeier said. "But I'll tell you what, if I was ever in the situation I could start a team, he’s the guy I want. If you’re trying to start something, the guy that does absolutely everything, outworks everybody and its pretty dang talented, it’s him.”
Waters' choice came down between the Wildcats and Nittany Lions. In the week before Waters' commitment, he hosted Bill O'Brien at his house.
Uncertainty overcame Waters during his recruitment. Strohmeier says that shortly before he chose Kansas State, he sat with Waters for hours to try and make the right decision.
"The big thing was that K-State recruits JUCO kids, that’s a huge benefit of what maybe steered him a little bit," Strohmeier said. "I know it came down to the wire, and I didn’t know two nights before he announced, I’m at his house with his mom and dad till 11:00 at night going over different things."
They walked away with the Wildcats in mind, but there was still waffling.
“He made the decision pretty much that night, but he was going back and forth," Strohmeier said. "That night when we left, the next morning I texted him and asked are you still good, and he was pretty much set."
So on December 13, 2012, Waters selected Kansas State. He enrolled that following spring and immediately began competing with Daniel Sams for the starting job.
The competition dragged on all the way until the week leading up to Week 1 of the 2013-14 season, when Snyder announced that Waters would be the starter.
But Waters didn't get off to a great start in Manhattan.
In Waters' first start for K-State, the Wildcats fell to FCS North Dakota State at home. After two wins against bottom-feeder FCS teams, Waters and Co. dropped the first three games of the Big 12 season.
In Week 6 against Oklahoma State, Snyder had seen enough and, although he "started," Waters was benched for most of the game in favor of Sams. The same was true the next week against Baylor. Both games, though, were losses.
Up to that point, Waters had just four touchdown passes, five interceptions and was throwing for fewer than 175 yards per game.
“At the beginning of the year last season...I was trying to get that home run ball," Waters said.
He was trying to do too much. Waters wasn't letting the game come to him like he had in high school and with the Reivers.
"It wasn’t that he wasn’t confident, he was unsure of some things," Strohmeier said. "He tried to do too much early on."
Snyder echoes Strohmeier's sentiments, saying that if Waters was going through a rough adjustment process to the college game, that it was his fault and not Waters'.
“If he was trying to do too much, that’s because we put too much on his plate," Snyder said.
The waters calm
With Kansas State sitting at 2-4 and at risk of missing a bowl game, they squared off against Big 12 bottom-feeder West Virginia. It was that game that saw Waters slowly but surely come out of his shell.
He completed 10-of-13 passes that afternoon for 198 yards and also had three touchdowns in the 35-12 win.
"I am proud of him," Snyder said after that game. "When things don't go your way that is what you are supposed to do. We are all supposed to do that. That is what life is all about."
The Wildcats went on to win four of its next five games, giving the team bowl eligibility. Over that span, Waters took more and more control of the offense away from Sams. His best game arguably came in the team's only loss in the second half of the season: a 348-yard, three touchdown showing against Oklahoma.
The reason for Waters' turnaround? He wasn't going for that home run ball anymore. He started to let the game come to him.
If anything, that opened up the deep ball for Waters. Against TCU, he had two touchdown passes of over 70 yards. Against the Sooners, he found Tyler Lockett for a 90-yard score.
In the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Michigan, Waters continued to find his stride and torched the Wolverines to the tune of 271 yards and three touchdowns on 21-of-27 passing. He became the first quarterback to win a bowl game for the Wildcats since Ell Roberson back in 2002.
"It was my feeling going into the bowl game that Jake is gonna have a breakout day," Strohmeier said. "He was starting, and I just had a feeling that that was gonna be the start of it."
"Now, his confidence is rolling over."
The next step
It was Waters' second season at Iowa Western that saw him breakout. So is he poised for the same type of season in 2014, his second year in Manhattan?
Snyder thinks so.
“I like his approach right now,” Snyder said. “He really is all business, he’s dedicated to continuing the improvement that he has made."
Not only does Waters have a year of experience under his belt, but he has one less person nipping at his heels this year.
Sams, the guy who was vying for playing time over Waters, is switching to wide receiver after it became apparent that Waters had taken the reins over for good.
"Having me kind of be the guy, I can take that next step and leadership role," Waters said. "That gives me a little bit more confidence in knowing that if I make a bad play here or there, we’re not going to bring me out or something. I’m just trying to take control and get us where we need to be.”
That hasn't necessarily hurt the connection between him and Sams. The two connected on a pass in Kansas State's spring game, and the two were best friends last season, high-fiving each other after one took the other out.
Now Waters is the team's ambassador. When Snyder put in Kaiden Schroeder, a 9-year-old battling cancer, to run the ball in for a touchdown in the spring game, it was Waters that guided him.
Waters is trying to put last season's acclimation to the Big 12 behind him, and he appears well on his way.
"You’ve got to settle down and just play," Snyder said. "He’s just made headway throughout, and I don’t anticipate it will be any different other than he’s got a great foundation to build on based on last year.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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