NCAA Football: Big 12 Media Days

LAS VEGAS -- Kansas State absolutely, positively did not need to make a quarterback change. 

Incumbent Will Howard was one of the most accomplished players in program history, leading the Wildcats to their first outright Big 12 title in almost 20 years. After entering the portal, Howard landed at Ohio State, a program that has put three of its last four quarterbacks into the first round of the NFL Draft

Moving on from a sure thing was a tremendous risk, but that's how much Kansas State believes in sophomore Avery Johnson, the newest star quarterback in the Big 12 who took Media Days by storm. 

"We saw enough last year for us to know that he was going to be the guy longterm for us," Kansas State coach Chris Klieman said. "He was ready for that moment. I told him when I recruited him, I knew he was going to be the face of the program." 

Klieman isn't one for hyperbole, but his confidence in Johnson radiated as he addressed the media. Only a year after landing in Manhattan, Kansas, as the program's highest-ranked quarterback recruit since Josh Freeman, Johnson and his flowing locks have taken the responsibility seriously. 

The Pop Tarts Bowl against NC State's strong defense was a coming out party. Johnson posted 178 yards passing, 71 yards rushing and three touchdowns to win MVP honors in his first career start. The video of Johnson taking the initial nervous bites of the edible Pop Tarts mascot went viral across the internet. 

"You go back to the bowl game, you see what he can do," offensive lineman Hadley Panzer told CBS Sports. "We've known all along that he can run the ball, but I think this year people will see that he can throw the ball as well." 

Johnson is far from just a slew of viral moments. He's the kind of game-wrecking force that breaks the calculus of defending K-State's offense. In his breakout game against Texas Tech, Johnson completed 8 of 9 passes and rushed for five touchdowns. For the season, he averaged 5.7 yards per carry and did not throw an interception. 

"It means a lot [to be named the starter] because I haven't played a full season," Johnson told CBS Sports. "It just shows the trust the coaches have of me since I've come on campus. I love those guys to death and I feel like the respect goes both ways." 

While he has some of the hallmarks of an underclassman rushing quarterback, Johnson has excelled in the pocket as well. He is quick to recognize mismatches and has shown real ability to place the ball in advantageous spots. 

But what makes Johnson really special goes beyond the football field – and back to Howard. It was no secret that Johnson was the future of the program when he committed to Klieman and his staff. On game days, Howard shared a hotel room with the excitable young freshman; Johnson got to see how a winner prepared.

"He showed me what it really meant to put the team first and put yourself on the line for the team," Johnson said. "I really learned how to lead by watching him."

Klieman raves about Johnson's maturity. Like the Pied Piper of Maize, the best players in Kansas have followed. After a brief year at Colorado, Dylan Edwards, the No. 2 overall recruit in Kansas in the Class of 2023, transferred to the Wildcats. Tackles Gus Hawkins and Kaedin Massey, the No. 2 and No. 4 in-state players, respectively, landed with the Wildcats. For 2025, Kansas State just landed a commitment from tight end Linkon Cure, the first five-star in program history. 

In the new Big 12, there is no Texas and Oklahoma standing in the way of national contention. The winner of the league will, in all likelihood, make the College Football Playoff. Two years ago, that would have been Kansas State. This is a program that rose from the ashes when Bill Synder arrived in 1989 and reached national contention. With Johnson at the helm, why not now? Why not Kansas State? Why can't the long-haired kid from Maize, Kansas, be the catalyst that elevates one of the scrappiest programs in college football to the peak of the sport? 

"I believe it, and he believes that he should be the best quarterback in this league," Klieman said. "Now, we have to go out and prove it, but there's a belief that is there."