Kansas State football: Why the Wildcats believe their team chemistry has improved
Thompson: 'It's been my most enjoyable fall camp'
MANHATTAN — Skylar Thompson received his undergraduate degree in management, but six years hanging around Kansas State football locker rooms has taught him a thing or two about chemistry as well.
When things are going well, it's easy. When the going gets tough, that's the true test.
But there is no denying that Thompson, the Wildcats' super-senior quarterback, looks more relaxed and at ease halfway through his final preseason camp. And he attributes that in large part to positive team chemistry.
"I'll tell you what, it's been the most enjoyable fall camp in my time here," Thompson said last week. "We're a week and a half through it, but I feel like guys have been engaged.
"There's been high energy, fighting through adversity."
Adversity, of course, is relative. A year ago, the Wildcats missed out on valuable preparation time when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out spring practice and the virus hung over the team like a dark cloud throughout the season.
A five-game losing streak to end the season didn't help team morale, and a spate of transfers followed the disappointing 4-6 campaign.
But the transfer portal that sent a few players scurrying out of the program also opened the door for some new blood, and coach Chris Klieman and his staff have been pleased with the results.
The team chemistry appears to be improved, Klieman said two weeks ago during his first fall media session, but he also tempered it with a cautionary note.
"It is, until you hit adversity," he said. "It is, and how do we handle adversity?"
Still, three years into his K-State coaching tenure, Klieman is confident that his current roster is better positioned to negotiate any potential pitfalls. There's something to be said for continuity and familiarity.
"There's five super-seniors, but there's a bunch (more) of them that have heard the same message through us as coaches," he said, referencing offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham, defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman, assistant head coach Van Malone and others. "They know what we want out of them at practice and in meetings and in walkthrough.
"So it is, I think, a comfort level for those guys to say, 'OK, we've just got to go out and execute it. They're giving us the tools, they're giving us the opportunity.' So I like where we're at, but we've got to still overcome adversity."
The way Thompson sees it, the Wildcats already are passing their first test by pressing through the dog days of fall camp.
"This time is where you find out what your team is made of," he said. "We're sore, you're tired (and) it's just turning into a grind.
"We're past the honeymoon stage of just starting, so this is where you find out what you're made of. Who's going to rise to the occasion? How are we going to respond to adversity and whatnot?"
Collin Klein, who also has been through more than his share of K-State camps, first as a player and now as quarterbacks coach, agreed that the early signs are all positive.
"I think everybody is jelled together," Klein said. "I think everyone is a lot more focused on the guy next to him and not just themselves.
"I think, obviously, a lot of isolation last year doesn't help that, but I think (the players) have all made a great effort toward that and we're moving in the right direction."
Center Noah Johnson, another super-senior and team captain, said he is convinced that last year's difficulties were just a precursor to better times ahead.
"There's a huge difference (this year)," he said. "I am a person who always tries to think positively, and even last year in some of our darkest or just toughest times, the base of having a great culture and great program was still there.
"Our coaches were still giving us the right messages, and we still had, I believe, the right group of guys together. Building the right culture takes maturity, and maturity, you've got to go through some stuff."
The pandemic, which left the team constantly wondering how many players would be available in a given week, added to the tension. The fact that it followed a spring and summer of isolation — Zoom meetings are not the same as face-to-face contact — didn't help, either.
"The entire team having a true summer where they led each other has bonded them where they have much more understanding and understanding where that person's coming from," Messingham said. "In today's deal, with the way our situation is, I need to understand as an individual that, hey, you've got some different things maybe than I have going on in my life.
"Do I have empathy for it, yes, but I've still got to hold you to a standard. We feel much more comfortable now as players and coaches saying, 'I hear you, I understand it, but this is still the standard that we've got to play at.' "
"A lot of the great teams that you see, very rarely are they just one year immediately a great team," he said. "You've got to go through your trials and your tribulations to learn and to grow.
"I think that's what last year really did for us. That was tough."
The offseason transfer portal activity also helped, according to Thompson, who credited Klieman and his staff for adding the right veteran players to the mix.
"That's the biggest thing," Thompson said. "We want guys that are all in for the team, and they're going to put the team first in everything they do.
"Everybody added (and) everybody that stayed back definitely believes in that."