MANHATTAN — Put yourself in Nick Kaltmayer's shoes for a moment. You just started your first game at right tackle for the Kansas State Wildcats, and things couldn't have gone any better for you or your team. You helped pave the way for 344 rushing yards in a 35-17 victory over UCLA in the 2017 Cactus Bowl as a sophomore, and your future seems bright.
What do you do next?
Returning to the sideline for most of your junior year is probably low on your list of potential answers, but that's the path Kaltmayer had to follow last season with Dalton Risner (a second-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft) ahead of him on the depth chart.
"For two years now, I have definitely wanted to play," Kaltmayer said. "Last year was hard with Dalton coming back, but I knew that was just my role on the team, being that seventh or eighth man on the offensive line. I just had to accept that role and embrace it, any struggles that came with that, and fit in where I could."
Kaltmayer did exactly that last season, playing in all 12 of K-State's games as a blocker on field goals while also getting the occasional snap at right tackle behind Risner. Kaltmayer earned first-team academic All-Big 12 honors. By all accounts, he was a team player.
It was still a frustrating time. Kaltmayer was arguably one of the top five offensive linemen on the roster, and certainly a top reserve. But that wasn't enough to get him in the starting lineup ... until now.
"It is all excitement right now," Kaltmayer said. "I love my new role and I am excited to get out with these guys and show everyone what I can do."
Taking over for an offensive lineman like Risner can be an intimidating task. Risner was a long-time staple for K-State's front five, starting his first year at center and then moving to right tackle for his final three. He was the team's best all-around player last season.
"It's definitely big shoes to fill, but the last couple years I learned a lot from Dalton that will help me transition to being a full-time starter here," Kaltmayer said. "I think I am prepared for it. I have been working hard for it, and I am ready to fill those shoes."
If his senior season goes anything like the Cactus Bowl, he will be just fine. Kaltmayer stepped in for Risner while he recovered from shoulder surgery, and he didn't look anything like a backup.
"My pass protection was good and I was able to step up and block whoever was against me there," Kaltmayer said. "I was also able to fit in with the other guys and just kind of mesh with the right guard (Tyler Mitchell). We got it going from the start and then finished the game well. It felt like we were fluid as an offensive line the whole way."
K-State coaches are expecting more good things from Kaltmayer this season. At 6-foot-8 and 311 pounds, he has ideal size for his position, and he handles himself like a pro.
There's a chance he could thrive playing alongside multiple tight ends and fullbacks in Chris Klieman's run-heavy offense.
"He is a guy who has not only taken on this role but wanted to own this role," K-State offensive line coach Conor Riley said. "He is in his fifth year and continues to want more. That is one of the most impressive things about him. He absorbs everything we throw at him."
Kaltmayer's mental maturity goes all the way back to his freshman year, when he played for Western Illinois instead of K-State. He made it onto the field for seven games straight out of high school back then, helping his team defeat a pair of ranked FCS opponents near the end of the season.
His future seemed bright then, too, but he began looking at other schools following a coaching change and ended up in Manhattan. He thought he had the talent to play at this level, so he took his shot. His journey has included several twists, turns and offensive line coaches. Riley is his fourth position coach in five years of college football.
Perhaps you would have followed have different path in his shoes, but Kaltmayer has no regrets. He's ready for his encore.