'Unfinished business': Why Kansas State football's five super-seniors returned for a senior day encore

Arne Green
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson (7) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against TCU on Oct. 30. Thompson and four other sixth-year players are among 32 Wildcat seniors who will be honored before Saturday's home finale against Baylor at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

MANHATTAN — A year ago, as he stood near the Kansas State locker room waiting for his name to be called on senior day, Noah Johnson's heart really wasn't in it.

The spectators at Bill Snyder Family Stadium numbered less than 10,000, a byproduct both of the COVID-19 pandemic and what would soon become a five-game season-ending losing streak. Besides, Johnson had already made a decision in his mind that this would not be his farewell to K-State football or his college career.

Because of the pandemic, the NCAA granted all players an additional year of eligibility and Johnson was all in.

"Last year, I didn't even want to do any senior day stuff because I knew I was going to come back," said Johnson, the Wildcats' starting center and one of 32 seniors who will be honored Saturday, minutes before K-State's 4:30 p.m. kickoff against No. 13-ranked Baylor. "Our family wasn't even allowed to come on the field.

"It was nice, but my parents have come to every game this year and credit to them for everything they've done for me. To be able to share the moment with them (this) weekend is going to be awesome."

Johnson is one of five K-State super-seniors who will get their second bite of the senior day apple, joining quarterback Skylar Thompson, defensive end Bronson Massie, linebacker Cody Fletcher and safety Jahron McPherson. Regardless of the outcome of Saturday's game, they all leave under better circumstances.

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The Wildcats are 7-3, guaranteeing a winning season, and if they extend their current four-game winning streak it also will ensure a winning Big 12 record with just one regular-season game remaining next Friday at Texas. And by beating in-state rival Kansas two weeks ago, they also became bowl eligible for the second time in three years.

"It's kind of weird," Thompson, who last year suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the third game, said of what also will be his second senior day ceremony. "Especially because last year it was in the back of my mind that I was probably going to come back. So I somewhat had to fake that it was my last one.

"But last year we weren't able to have our families down there, and it was a lot different than it will be this year. So to have a normal ceremony — we have 32 seniors, which is a lot — is awesome. I'll be excited to have my family down there and for sure know that this is my last one, obviously it means a lot, so I'm excited for it."

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Of the five super-seniors, team captains Thompson and Johnson were the ringleaders, in large part because they felt they had unfinished business. Both told their coaches that they intended to come back, though it took a while for word to get out on Johnson, who is not active on social media.

"I just don't have Twitter or Instagram. All the coaches knew, I just didn't post anything," Johnson explained. "Once Skylar got hurt and I knew he was coming back, the more and more I realized that I just want to keep playing football and I want to keep playing football at K-State.

"I kind of always knew deep down and I guess I officially decided the Sunday after we played Texas the last game. I went and met with coach (Conor) Riley and coach (Chris) Klieman and asked if they would have me back. From then on out it was go time."

Once Thompson made his decision shortly after undergoing surgery to repair his throwing shoulder, he went to work on the other seniors.

"I will say I did some recruiting in that aspect," Thompson said. "At the end of the day, I knew everybody's situation was different and guys like Noah Johnson were easy to get to come back.

"It wasn’t a deal that I was going to pressure anybody to make any decisions. It was just throwing it in their mind like, ‘Hey, we have unfinished business, and with the way this season went, we can't walk away with it being this way.’ I couldn't fault them for whatever decision they made, but whoever was deciding to come back, we were going to give it our all for this last year, and we were going to finish on a high note."

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Nobody was more appreciative than Klieman, who also was deeply disappointed with how the 2020 season — his second as K-State's head coach — ended.

“Just in general for the five, I was so happy that they trusted us as a staff, and trusted the culture and trusted what was going on here. That they wanted to finish it on a high note," Klieman said. "Last season didn't go as well as we all wanted for a variety of reasons.

"All those guys, for different reasons, came back, some because they wanted to play with their buddies one more time, some because they have aspirations of playing at the next level (and) some they just love the game. But most importantly, they all love K-State football."

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Thompson, a starter since his redshirt freshman year, has come back after missing two early games with a knee injury to have arguably his most productive season. In the six games since returning from the injury, he has completed 72.2% of his passes for 1,456 yards and nine touchdowns with two interceptions.

In the West Virginia game, Thompson set a school career record with 23 career victories as the starting quarterback, and his 38 starts also are a record. He also is the only player in K-State history to throw for at least 6,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in his career.

McPherson, another team captain, has quietly had a solid season as the leader in K-State's retooled defensive secondary.

His 43 tackles, including six for loss with a sack and a forced fumble, ranks third on the team behind linebackers Daniel Green and Fletcher.

"J-Mac has had a really good year," Klieman said. "When we moved him positions from strong safety to the middle safety, I think it kind of even sparked him a little.

"He's still the leader in the back end. He's the guy that's directing traffic. He's the guy that is breaking guys down. He's a guy that's challenging other people."

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Massie, who has missed two games with an injury, remains a key contributor in the Wildcats' defensive line rotation. He also chose to join the other super-seniors for one last go-round.

"(Last year) wasn't a normal year," Massie said. "A couple of guys like me, J-Mac, Sky-T, Noah Johnson, we called it the 'Revenge Tour' and came back because we just didn't like the way last year ended."

The last of the five to re-up was Fletcher, who has started all but one game at weak-side linebacker, recording 55 tackles, including six for loss, with one sack. Last week, he had his first career interception to help ice the victory over West Virginia.

"Just the opportunity to play one more time here at this place that I love and play alongside Daniel (Green) again, and just be with my friends," Fletcher said of his reason for returning. "These teammates and just the fact that I really believe in coach Klieman and what he brought to the program.

"He's the biggest reason I decided to come back."

All five have contributed to the Wildcats' resurgence.

"I believe all of our sixth-year guys who were seniors have done a great job as far as providing leadership and demanding more out of our teammates, and it's paid off," Thompson said. "I think just having so much experience in the program and game experience and all that type of stuff just pays off over time, and you can't simulate it, so it's been really good for us.”

Klieman agreed.

"I was excited that all those guys came back," he said. "They've all had an impact.

"They're all great leaders, and they're all guys that had a profound impact on the turnaround that we've had this year.”