Once upon a time, Kansas State Wildcats quarterback Jesse Ertz was a lightly-recruited pro-style passer from a small town in Nowhere, Iowa in 2013.
After accepting an offer from Bill Snyder — likely a relatively easy choice since his only other offer was from FCS program Western Illinois — Ertz eventually earned the starting job as a junior last season.
Now, after using his legs to demoralize the Texas Longhorns defense last season in a home win that foretold the demise of the Charlie Strong era, Ertz is a proven runner whose skills are maximized by the Kansas State offensive attack.
Even the 332 yards rushing and three touchdowns Ertz has accumulated through the season’s first four games don’t tell the whole tale — his best runs tend to come at the most back-breaking times.
In part, that’s because Ertz isn’t a particularly accomplished passer, hitting only 37.8 percent of his passes in the last two games and throwing two interceptions in a surprising road loss to Vanderbilt.
Drops by wide receivers, which earned a rare public admonishment from Snyder after last week’s win over Baylor, haven’t helped matters.
Of course, the throwing ability of Ertz didn’t exactly hurt his performance against Texas last season, as he completed a long pass early and then benefited from large cushions afforded to him by the defensive backs of the ‘Horns. All that despite dealing with a shoulder injury that seemingly left his arm strength sapped after that first throw.
On the day, Ertz went 20-of-27 passing for 171 yards and a touchdown, good enough to pull out the 24-21 victory.
What makes the Kansas State quarterback so dangerous is that he’s a perfect fit in Dana Dimel’s offense, much like Collin Klein — he possesses the ability to check the Wildcats into the right plays at the line of scrimmage and the patience to let his blocks develop on quarterback draws.
“He's so impressive,” said defensive coordinator Todd Orlando on Wednesday. “I went back and watched multiple years of film. He's dynamic in terms of running the ball. He really can turn it on. He's got great vision. He's instinctive.”
Often used in long down-and-distance situations, those draws left the Texas defense flummoxed last season and allowed back-breaking plays that extended drives. As easy as it might seem to fix those problems defensively, Baylor suffered many of the same issues last week.
For most teams, negative-yardage plays tend to destroy drives, especially third and long. However, since Kansas State has so much success running Ertz in those situations, the Wildcats can keep drives alive and keep the clock running.
The obvious solution is to use junior linebacker Malik Jefferson to spy on Ertz, but since Jefferson had so many issues defeating blocks last season against Kansas State and those draw plays feature offensive linemen climbing to the second level, that may not be enough.
Once Ertz gets into the open field, he often doesn’t look like he’s moving particularly quickly, but he’s 212 pounds and has a knack for forcing missed tackles.
“You can sit there and have a guy 1-on-1 against him and a majority of the time he's going to make you miss,” Orlando said. “Our kids absolutely respect his game. I do, personally, as a coach because I've been doing this a very long time. He plays with an unbelievable savvy.”
The combination of play calling by the Kansas State coaches and the savvy of Ertz makes for a tough challenge for Orlando and his rapidly-improving defense.
Orlando’s warning about stopping Ertz sounded particularly ominous.