Isaiah Zuber won’t have an opportunity to showcase his on-field skills this spring.
Zuber, a rising fifth-year senior receiver, will sit out the Wildcats’ 15 spring practice sessions as he continues to recover from offseason hip surgery.
“He’s off the crutches,” first-year K-State head coach Chris Klieman said Friday. “He’s been off them for a couple weeks. He’s been doing a lot of great rehabilitation. He’s going into his senior year, so I know he is excited about getting back out there and competing with his brothers.”
Zuber ranked first in nearly every receiving category last season, including receptions (52), receiving yards (619), touchdown receptions (five) and yards per game (51.6).
But he also struggled on special teams.
After returning a punt for a touchdown in the comeback win over South Dakota in the season opener, Zuber had an uneven showing in the return game the remainder of the fall. He muffed the opening kickoff of the second half against Baylor; the Bears went on to score a touchdown less than a minute later, and ended up losing that contest 37-34. On Nov. 3 at TCU, Zuber couldn’t hang on to a punt following a three-and-out on the game’s opening possession. The Horned Frogs capitalized, scoring a pivotal touchdown in a 14-13 win over the Wildcats.
All the positives — and negatives — for Zuber last season aren’t of concern to Klieman, though.
“What you did last year, I really don’t care about,” Klieman said. “I want to know what they’re going to do today, and what they’re going to do tomorrow. Sometimes I think we get labeled, whether it’s a coach or whether it’s a player, (by) what you did in the past. I know there are some merit to some of those things, but let’s move forward on some guys, and he’s one of those guys I know is excited about getting healthy, for starters.”
Offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said Zuber missing the spring “isn’t a big deal” at the moment.
“The bigger part is his ability to keep learning, and even though he’s not getting reps, understand how the offense fits together, understand what we’re going to ask from a player’s standpoint — both how you go about playing, and then how you fit into the system,” Messingham said. “I’ve been happy with what he’s been doing, and in his engagement.”
Klieman noted Zuber notably has been engaged in every way he can despite the injury. On the practice field. In the film room.
Wherever he can, Zuber is helping tutor the team’s underclassmen pass-catchers.
“What I’ve been impressed (about) with ‘Zube’ is talking to the young receivers about route combinations or how they should run a route or where their eyes should be or what the coverage was,” Klieman said. “That’s what we have to have out of the receiver position, especially the leaders who are our seniors.”
Jason Ray, in his first season as the Wildcats’ wide receivers coach, said it’s “huge” to have Zuber remaining mentally engrossed in every aspect of the program.
That’s the hope, Ray said, for any player in Zuber’s position.
“If you’re a guy who’s not participating and going through drill work and things like that, you have to be actively involved,” Ray said. “In the film room, he’s been great. He’s taking notes. You’re always going to encourage (him) and make it mandatory.
“(Like), ‘Hey, you’re still involved.’ (He’s) taking notes, communicating personnel groups throughout practice, and he has been serving as a great leader, especially for the younger guys (with) his personality, his great energy.”
In a way, Ray said Zuber is an extension of the on-field coaching staff.
“He’s actively involved in practice. He’s making sure the guys are getting lined up correctly,” Ray said. “He’s serving as almost, essentially, a player-coach.”
His eagerness to assist despite being sidelined is “rare,” Ray said. In today’s time, Ray pointed out many players have a tendency to lose their motivation when to continue bettering themselves while injured. That’s why he’s in contact with Zuber so often.
Even though he’s not physically taking part in spring practice, he’s there in mind and spirit.
“I think the message and how you communicate is the most important thing as a coach,” Ray said. “The communication to those guys, and specifically with Zuber is, ‘Hey man, you need to be involved. You need to make sure that you’re taking care of business, that you’re showing up on time to meetings, that you’re engaged in meetings.’ That’s what he’s done.”