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July 14, 2021

Chris Klieman

Arlington, Texas, USA

Kansas State Wildcats

Press Conference

CHRIS KLIEMAN: It's great to be here and great to see everybody. It's refreshing to be able to have face-to-face conversations and so happy the Big 12 was able to put this on. I know all of us coaches and all of the student-athletes here are excited about getting back to some normality and away from the Zooms and being able to be around all of you and all of us together. And so kudos to Commissioner (Bob) Bowlsby for the great oversight through last year to get us through a really difficult, tough time.

We had a difficult season last year in a number of respects. But I think if you don't grow and learn from something, then it really can be overshadowed, the problems that you had, and so we really grew, and I learned an awful lot about myself as a leader about myself as a coach, about myself as a mentor and our staff did, as well.

We had some really good wins and some good times, and we had some really tough times. And some of those tough times weren't even on the field but seeing kids get pulled off of the field, seeing kids get tapped on the shoulder and be out, and then four other buddies say, "I had dinner with that guy last night, I'll probably be next," to seeing guys get on the bus to go to the airport and get taken off the bus and be say, "Sorry, you didn't pass the last test."

Hopefully, all that stuff is behind us and we can have a good football season. We've had a really good spring and exceptional summer. We have a new strength and conditioning staff led by Tru Carroll who has an unbelievable impact on our football team and our football players and helped enhance the already good culture at Kansas State to another level.

I feel really good about us going into 2021. It starts off with our quarterback, having Skylar Thompson back. But I also will throw Will Howard into that mix too because we have two starting quarterbacks returning, and it's pretty cool when -- quarterback oftentimes is a position that you either have one or you have none, and we have at least two and some other kids that potentially have a chance.

Offensive line is returning intact and we played nine guys there. Have a really good nucleus of wide receivers and tight ends that we have the ability to get the football to, and we have a good tailback in Deuce Vaughn, who is as humble as the day is long, and absolutely love how he's handled the accolades and success he has because he has not felt like he's arrived. He felt like he has more to prove. And an unbelievable young man with an unbelievable family and set of parents that have taught him the right way, and he's a tremendous leader and he's a tremendous football player.

Where we have to make great improvements is on defense. We were not a very good defense throughout the last year. We had a couple of nice moments on defense but not good enough in this league to be successful. And that's something that we're going to work like heck to get shored up, and I'll look forward to the challenge of our guys, Jahron McPherson representing our defense today, and I know he looks forward to that challenge as well. We had a really good spring, implementing a lot of new defensive kids, and look forward to seeing how that comes to fruition this fall.

Special teams have always been a staple at Kansas State, will continue to be this year, as well. We have a tremendous returner in Phillip Brooks and a really good scheme to get him the ball on punt and kick returns. And we have a good punter coming back and a good kicker as well.

So, I'm excited about getting back to normalcy and excited about what the 2021 season is going to bring, and as always, this league is so difficult, and each week we've got to try to have great games, come up with ways to be successful.

With that, we'll open up for questions.

Q. The first year for a new coach is always a feeling-out process, and then you go into a COVID year. Does this make year three even more kind of important for your program?

CHRIS KLIEMAN: Well, all seasons are important. I thought the first season was important and to get jump started. I thought the second season, you can keep it going is important.

Now, we're into the third season and it's kind of like we're resetting a little bit, resetting some values, resetting some culture things, resetting some things in the weight room, resetting some things in our program. So every year has its importance, but without question, our progress on the field is what we all need to see improvement on, and we're excited about that.

Q. You mentioned Deuce earlier, Deuce Vaughn, talking about him being a humble player and feels like he has a lot to prove. How nice is it to have a guy like that on your squad, and where do you want to see him improve this season?

CHRIS KLIEMAN: It's great to have him on our squad. He has the ultimate respect from our older guys in how he conducts himself not only on the field and in the weight room but more importantly off the field and in the classroom and in our community. He does everything right.

But just finding more and more creative ways to get the kid the football. I think he's an underrated running back. And what I mean by that is everybody knows his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and make people miss and get match-up problems there, but just in our two-back offense, behind a fullback or one-back set with Skylar (Thompson) or Will (Howard), he's such a terrific running back with great vision and great balance and sees things so well, but I know he needs to improve on his pass protection and I know he wants to improve on more adjustments and checks and more defensive identity things that he wants to master, so to speak.

But what a terrific young man to have in our program.

Q. Oklahoma has won six consecutive Big 12 titles, yet your team is 2-0 during your tenure at Kansas State. What's worked? How have you been able to have the Sooners' number like that?

CHRIS KLIEMAN: I don't know if we have anybody's number. I have so much respect for Lincoln and his staff and his team, and they are a great, great team, and they deserve to be on top because of their body of work. It's not a one-game season; it's a body of work, and Lincoln and Oklahoma have proven that year-in and year-out that they are the elite team in our conference.

The biggest thing we try to do that game, as well as other ones, but that game, in particular, is don't worry about the name on the front of the jersey or what the pundits or experts say. Let's just play our game and keep finding a way to make a play. We were down 35-14 in the third quarter and really nobody batted an eye, and then we were able to make a play with Skylar (Thompson) to Deuce (Vaughn), and then we were able to get a big turnover with Jahron McPherson and block a punt, and next thing you know it's 35-35.

So, it's a belief and a mindset that we have the opportunity to be successful if we play to our capabilities. In the same respect, we could get run out of the gym by them, as well. It's just the fact that our kids have risen to the occasion.

Q. You talked a little bit about resetting values. Looking back on your first two seasons, what lessons did you learn and how are you applying it to resetting those values? On top of that, what specifically are you resetting?

CHRIS KLIEMAN: We came up with some core values at the end of this season that were going to be exemplified with our student-athletes on and off the field. One was discipline, one was commitment, one was toughness, and the last one was to be selfless. And they are kind of plastered all over our Vanier Complex right now.

We all saw the problems that COVID created in the lack of building and keeping relationships. I saw a lot of you, but I didn't get a chance to really visit with a lot of you. I saw our team, but other than seeing them at practice or coming in and out of a meeting, you didn't get a chance to really see them. They never were in the offices because of our COVID protocols. You didn't get a chance to say, "Hey, I'm going to sit with you in this meal," because we are at individual tables or we had a to-go box. You didn't get a chance to visit with them in the locker room, because we had two locker rooms, and kids scattered all over the place.

When I say reset, the building of relationships is the biggest thing that us coaches need to do with our student-athletes, and we lost a lot of that. And some people say, yeah, you still had the opportunity, and you betcha you did, but not like you do when it's normal and guys circle up to the office all the time.

In the spring, even though we weren't maybe in a 20-hour period, just in an eight-hour period, we required our kids to swing by the offices and say hello so we could get that contact and facial and touching of a handshake or whatever it may be as the semester went on, as we started to clear up some of our COVID things, just to build bonds.

Mental health is a real deal. I saw that this year in 2020 throughout the entire season, as well as my own daughter who was a freshman at K-State who said she didn't like college. Well, how can you like college when you are sitting in your dorm room all the time? I saw kids suffer from mental health when they see a buddy taken off the practice field and know that he's the roommate so he's next.

We just kind of reevaluated and reset everything, and building of relationships and showing the kids you care and showing the kids you love them is a really critical factor.

Q. How much of an advantage is it to have the offensive line back, and can you build off that to this season?

CHRIS KLIEMAN: It's a great question and a great point in the fact of when we came into the spring of 2020, that was the biggest question mark we had. We lost five senior offensive linemen and didn't know what we had other than some recruits and guys in reserve roles.

The first practice we had with those guys was in the middle of August. So we didn't get a chance to shore up that problem until we got through the entire season. We played nine guys in the offensive line extensively, and they are all back. So I really think it's going to be one of our strengths of our football team, is going to be on the offensive line, and it's going to have to be to keep Skylar (Thompson) healthy and give him time to get the ball to so many of the people that we have that can do some things with it.

I'm excited to have that group back, and it's led by Noah Johnson, who is a tremendous leader for us and also a guy who is kind of the pulse of our team.

Q. You have won a national championship as an FCS head coach. What is transferrable to this level, and what have you had to adjust to?

CHRIS KLIEMAN: Well, football is football is the one thing that's transferrable. Anybody can beat anybody on any given Saturday if you're not prepared to play. I know that we had a kid last year that we brought in as a transfer named Briley Moore, a grad transfer that was at Northern Iowa, and I knew he would be able to play at Kansas State just because I knew the brand of football and the kid that had a chip on his shoulder.

Football is football. And the thing I've probably had to learn the most, and it's not because of the transition of levels of play but more the transition of the transfer portal, that you're going to lose kids and kids are going to leave your program. Kids have left every program in the country.

I'm for the one-time transfer rule. I think it's great. I think it's awful when a kid has to sit and miss a year of football because this game is so great and it comes and goes so fast.

Just trying to manage a roster for all of us moving forward is going to be really tricky and it's going to create potentially a lot of parity in the fact of you may have to turn over a position group every year.

Q. Everybody has more seniors coming back this year. Does that mean the product had been better? What do you expect to see across the board in college football because of the experience?

CHRIS KLIEMAN: I sure hope so. We have five super seniors and hope they are going to be impactful for us, led by the quarterback. I hope the product is going to be a lot better because you're going to have so many kids that are going to be in the program a year longer.

I know that last year, the product of football across all landscapes wasn't probably to anybody's real liking because you were missing kids every week, NFL to college to high school.

This year, hopefully, and I know there's still some variants out there but hopefully, with vaccinations and protocols, we can have everybody with full capacity football teams in full-capacity stadiums so that college football can get the great recognition that it deserves as a great, great product.

Q. Adding in a veteran tight end in Daniel Imatorbhebhe, being able to have a guy who has been at multiple different schools and multiple different offensive sets, what does that do for you and especially the offense, more than just as a locker room presence but on the field as you are replacing Briley Moore?

CHRIS KLIEMAN: Bay-Bay is what we call him, is going to be a difference-maker. He's a tremendous, tremendous football player. We were able to see him this spring. Can do everything as a tight end. He can run, he can block, he can move but his biggest impact has been in our locker room. His biggest impact has been talking and communicating there and being there as a mentor for some of our players.

You know, everybody wants instant success and gratification by playing, and he's done a great job of telling kids to be patient and telling kids that there's a process and don't rush the process and don't take any shortcuts. And I've been so impressed with him as a person off the field and as excited to watch him on the field.

And I see his rapport with Skylar and will and our quarterbacks, he's out there all the time, running around, catching balls, and we know he's going to be an impact for us.

Q. You were picked 7th in the preseason poll. Just wondering if you have a comment on that?

CHRIS KLIEMAN: I think it's pretty irrelevant in my mind. Somebody told me we were picked ninth the first year and we finished third. You can be picked second and finish -- you still have to tee it up and be better every week and get better every day and for us to stack great days and give ourselves an opportunity to be successful, that's what we are trying to do.

Q. The NIL conversation is centered around the bigger school but a school like Kansas State has players we are all very familiar with. At a school like Kansas State, do you see it as a disadvantage for NIL like its being presented or an opportunity for guys who are producing?

CHRIS KLIEMAN: Two things on that. For one thing, I'm all for kids being able to profit off their Name, Image and Likeness, if they can make some money doing something, I'm all for it. They deserve it.

Second part of it is I think Manhattan is a home run for Name, Image and Likeness. We are the main story in town. Kansas State University and our athletic department and our kids are out in the community in all of our sports.

So if a kid comes to Manhattan, everybody is going to know him in that community and he's going to have a lot of opportunities. So for kids that think that you have to go to the big market areas, I disagree. I think Manhattan is a gold mine for NIL.

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