(TNS) — Before he became a team leader and a projected starter on Kansas State's defense, Trent Tanking had the humblest of expectations for his college football career.
His only goal as a walk-on freshman was to make the roster. Didn't matter if he played in every game or watched them all from the sideline, bringing teammates water and towels like a glorified manager. As long as K-State coaches kept letting him show up for practice, it was going to a fabulous year.
Back then, no one expected a lean 6-foot-2 tackler from Holton would eventually end up on scholarship and expect to be the team's top linebacker as a senior. Not even Tanking himself.
"Had you told me I would be here right now I would have said, 'You are out of your frigging mind,' " Tanking said last week at Big 12 media days in Frisco, Texas. "When you think about it, it is really cool how things worked out."
Cool might be an understatement. Tanking has been the hardest of hard workers during his five years in Manhattan, toiling in complete anonymity for two years before earning a scholarship and spending nearly another two plugging away on special teams before finally getting a crack at extended linebacker duty as a redshirt junior. But he was ready for the moment when it arrived, making five tackles and an interception in a single half while filling in for the injured Charmeachealle Moore against TCU last season.
"That was big for me, because it proved to my teammates what I can do," Tanking said. "I have done it in a live game, even though it wasn't an extended period of time. I gave them reason to be confident in me and trust me."
Now he gets a shot at more.
K-State's top three linebackers (Elijah Lee, Will Davis and Moore) all moved on in the offseason, leaving ample playing time for anyone willing to step into the spotlight. Tanking appears ready.
"He is going to be really good," K-State tight end Dayton Valentine said. "People still question him, because they haven't seen him play all that much, but his natural football instincts are amazing. He's also really smart and never stops working to be the best player he can be. I think he is really going to surprise some people."
It wasn't easy for Tanking to reach this point.
He sat out his first year with a redshirt, and was buried on the depth chart the following season. As time went on, he made big plays on special teams and earned a scholarship, but a promotion to starting linebacker remained out of reach. Still, he never gave up hope. Instead, he focused on reaching one small goal after another.
After cracking K-State's 105-man roster, he set his sights on special teams playing time as a redshirt freshman. A year after that, he wanted to be a member of every special teams unit, helping on all field goals, kickoffs and punts. Last year, he wanted to do enough as a backup to give him a shot at starting as a senior.
"He's the most patient person I know," Valentine said. "His journey, and all the work he put in to get here, is unbelievable. It's a testament to the type of person he is."
Tanking modeled the path after former K-State linebacker Jonathan Truman, a hard-nosed tackler that went from freshman walk-on to senior playmaker.
K-State football coach Bill Snyder once praised Truman for maximizing his potential. He sees similar traits in Tanking.
"He did what was in his best interests and he worked to help his team," Snyder said. "Some might call that old school, that is not what it is. That is just doing things the right way. I don't think any of us want to teach anybody to give up on anything in life that is important to us, and he made it important to him and he never agave up on it. Consequently, he earned the opportunity to do what he is doing. I admire him for that."
Tanking will get the opportunity to live his dream this season. It seems unlikely he will match the production of Lee (110 tackles and two interceptions) or Moore (75 tackles and three forced fumbles), but he is capable of making big plays. He made a team-high 12 tackles on special teams last season, and flashed a ferocious side on big hits.
He thinks of himself as a balanced linebacker, able to come up and defend the run as well as drop back into coverage and breakup passes. But he is best against the pass.
"Trent gets a lot of interceptions in practice," K-State defensive back D.J. Reed said. "He knows how to hide himself and then find the ball. He has really good hands. I feel like he is going to have a lot of interceptions this year."
Tanking should surpass his career statistics (35 tackles, two tackles for loss, one interception, no fumbles) in every category this season. But that's not what he is focused on.
A lifelong K-State fan, Tanking will continue to set small goals for himself. He wants to help the defense get off to a strong start against Central Arkansas and Charlotte and then validate itself against Vanderbilt. He hasn't thought any further ahead than that.
His life has drastically changed since his first days on campus, but his mindset remains the same.