MANHATTAN — Ryan Mueller announced his arrival loud and clear last year as one of the Big 12’s elite defensive ends.
The numbers — 11 1/2 sacks, 18 1/2 tackles for loss and 62 overall stops — spoke for themselves. So did the first-team all-Big 12 Conference defensive lineman of the year and second-team All-America honors.
But they also made Mueller, a senior from Leawood and St. Thomas Aquinas High School, a marked man, which in turn led to a much quieter encore season. His 5 1/2 sacks still lead the team, as do his 9 1/2 tackles for loss, but they’re nowhere near his gaudy junior statistics.
To the untrained eye, and perhaps even to Mueller himself, it would go down as a disappointment. The league coaches, on the other hand, made him a repeat all-conference selection and the media voted him to the second team All-America list.
“I think people just know,” Snyder said of Mueller’s production. “You just have to watch, and I’d like to think that people who vote on things, they see it as opposed to reading the stats.
“He doesn’t have the sacks that he had last year, but when you watch him, he’s playing every bit as well as he did a year ago. It’s a tribute to how hard and how well he plays that he would receive the honors without having all those statistics.”
Mueller, an intensely driven player from the time he arrived in Manhattan five years ago as a walk-on, acknowledged that he may have been a victim of his 2013 success this season.
“Just from a statistical standpoint, I was not really there compared to the other guys and I knew that,” he said. “This year was obviously a lot more challenging.
“Every game I felt like the opposing team really knew who I was, rather than last year where I was really more question-marked.”
Still Mueller, who will close out his K-State career in San Antonio on Jan. 2 against UCLA at the Alamo Bowl, never had to worry whether or not he was making a difference.
“At the end of the games this year, I would always have coaches come up to me and congratulate me and tell me I was a heck of a ballplayer,” he said. “They would pay me with compliments and that was really nice.
“Even though I may have not had any tackles or statistics during the game, it was a huge compliment for those coaches to come find me in the crowd after the game. It is really very kind and first class.”
Besides, Mueller said, the extra attention from opposing offenses taught him to embrace the team concept.
“Last year I had better numbers but I didn’t do as good of a job playing within the defense as I’m doing this year,” he said. “I think things that I’m doing now don’t show up in the stat sheet.
“But just from a fundamental aspect of good hand placement, hat placement, footwork is a lot better than the year prior.”
The all-conference recognition was further validation.
“I think the best way to say it is I’ve become more of a well-rounded football player,” Mueller said. “That just goes back to if you’re going to be a well-rounded football player you’ve got to play with great fundamentals, and I think that’s where I’ve really improved my game.”
Just as importantly, the Wildcat defense has not suffered. K-State allowed 358.8 yards per game a year ago and this season ranks 35th nationally, giving up 361.2.
The Wildcats need four sacks against UCLA — the Bruins have allowed 38 so far — to equal last year’s total of 28, and three tackles for loss to match the 2013 total of 71.
All that remains now is the bowl game, where the No. 11-ranked Wildcats and No. 14 UCLA both come in at 9-3.
“It’s been a good season,” Mueller said. “(But) another loss would just be really detrimental.
“Ending the season 9-4, that’s just not a good season. You want to get to double-digit wins and 10-3 would give us that opportunity.”