Twenty or so reporters surround Baylor head coach Art Briles at Big 12 Media Days. Briles is expected to answer questions for three hours, but he doesn’t seem phased. His demeanor is calm, cool and collected.
Then, he is asked about Ryan Mueller.
“Number 44? Oh my.”
It’s obvious Briles has not forgotten about their encounter nine months earlier.
“What I saw was him doing everything godly possible to beat our butt, making phenomenal plays with phenomenal effort,” Briles said. “You can say a try-hard guy, but he’s a try-hard guy with great talent. To me, that’s how you become great. Our staff, we have a lot of respect for that kid.”
Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury was asked the same question as Briles and the response was no different. Mueller had tallied 12 tackles, five sacks and forced two fumbles against their respected teams in 2013.
“I just think (that with) a guy like that, you can tell he’s earned everything he’s gotten,” Kingsbury said. “He’s worked from the bottom and gone on to have a tremendous career. I’m sure he’ll finish it off the right way, and it’s a credit to him as a player — his work ethic — and their coaches believing in him and giving him a chance.”
A chance it was. Mueller stumbled upon K-State in 2010 at a camp outside his house in Leawood, Kansas. He walked into it thinking it was a youth camp that he would help coach. Little did he know it would lead to an opportunity to walk on at the school he grew up cheering against.
“I was totally unfamiliar with Kansas State and what was going on there, but I knew Kansas State played in the Big 12 Conference,” Mueller said. “I wanted to play football at the highest level possible.
Mueller joined the program as a 205-pound nose tackle. The players he would go up against would often have upwards of 100 pounds on him, but it did not matter. Mueller didn’t quit trying.
“There were times when you win battles and times when you would lose battles,” Mueller said. “There were times when I ended up at the bottom of the pile as the runt of the defensive line. I’ve been slammed on the ground and had a few words exchanged. It’s all good. I just would dust myself off and move on to the next play.”
Though Mueller has put on an extra 40 pounds since joining the program in 2010, he remains smaller than the typical defensive end. That has not stopped him from being elite, though. Mueller had a breakout year in 2013, amassing 62 tackles and 11.5 sacks.
He quickly became a team leader and the answer for the loss of Meshak Williams, the 2012 Big 12 defensive lineman of the year.
“We had Meshak here, a phenomenal defensive end and the defensive lineman of the year,” Mueller said. “That was an award that I wanted to keep in the family. As soon as I won that award, I gave Meshak a call and said, ‘Hey man, I kept it in the family. I’m going to do everything it takes to keep it here in Manhattan, Kansas.’ I hope we started a trend so when after I leave, that added pressure can be on someone else in the room of trying to flourish in the program.”
Mueller said he only wants to get better in 2014. He was picked to four preseason watch lists and was named preseason All-Big 12, so he won’t be sneaking up on anyone. But for a former walk-on who received no offers out of high school, the success is a testament to the program that continually turns no-names into high-level talent in just a few short years.
“I don’t want to boast about me personally, but Kansas State, no doubt, has given me an opportunity to excel that not a lot of other programs would do for another player,” Mueller said. “They have given me a fair opportunity to come out and show what I’m capable of. I’ve taken full advantage of it and that opportunity is available to any kid that wants to come to Kansas State and put in the time and make the sacrifice. Come to Kansas State; it’s an open door, and we’ll see what you’re made of.”
Back in Dallas, Briles’ rant continued. His animated gestures conveyed what everyone already knows: 44 is a number to be reckon with.
Though Baylor doesn’t play K-State until Dec. 6, Briles said he has already formulated a plan to try and keep Mueller from replicating last year’s performance.
“If he’s on the left, tell him just to relax a little bit because we’re going to run to the right,” Briles said with a grin on his face. “That’s just the way it’s going to be, Ryan, so just calm down and don’t be hollering at me.”