MANHATTAN — There was a sense of nostalgia last Saturday when Tanner Wood got his hands on the football.
Wood lined up as a blocker on Kansas State’s kickoff return unit late in the first quarter and caught the short kick by Central Arkansas. A 4-yard return wasn’t significant, especially for a player who was a prolific runner in high school.
As a senior at Conway Springs High School in 2012, Wood rushed for 2,709 yards with a state single-game record of 659 yards and nine touchdowns in an 84-56 win over Chaparral.
At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, however, Wood was destined to play defense. The 2012 Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year and Parade honorable mention All-American came to K-State as a defensive end and now, as a senior, has earned a starting position.
The brief opportunity to run with the ball on that kickoff return was a blast from the past for a defender who wears No. 34, a numeral more associated with a running back.
“Oh, yeah, I miss it,” Wood said. “I got a return and that was kind of nice. I miss touching the ball but it’s not that big of a deal. We have another number 34 who runs the ball a heck of a lot better than I do.”
Wood was referring to Alex Barnes, the Wildcats’ starting running back who wears the duplicate number on offense. Wood is quite content to rush the passer rather than pile up rushing yards.
“I knew I was going to come here and play defense,” Wood said. “At Conway Springs, I never was really a running back or quarterback. It was just what we needed to do to win games so that’s what we did. I miss it but I really like playing defense.”
Wood has battled injuries throughout his career and, while playing numerous snaps when healthy, was in a backup role.
“I call him the ‘Conway Combine,’ ” said Wildcat senior safety Brogan Barry. “He’s got pure country boy strength for one, but just his dedication to this team is incredible. For all the injuries he’s fought through, just to see his continued dedication and the focus he’s kept while sitting behind a Jordan Willis or Marquel Bryant, he continued to work hard and to see it pay off for him is incredible.”
Wood started two games last season, and with the departure of Big 12 defensive player of the year Willis to the NFL as a third-round draft pick, he earned the No. 1 spot at left defensive end for the Wildcats’ 55-19 victory over Central Arkansas.
“Filling the shoes of Jordan to step in and make plays is going to be a big key this year, but he can do the job,” said Wildcat defensive tackle Trey Dishon. “He’s smart. We ask our D-ends to do a lot here and he plays good technique and makes plays. He’s a great pass-rusher for us.”
Wood, who had four tackles against UCA, said replacing a player of Willis’ stature can be daunting.
“Yeah, I feel pressure about that, but as a whole I think our defense can replace him,” said Wood, who has 74 career tackles with four sacks. “I think my career has evolved well. I’ve grown a lot over the last couple of years, and now I’m finally healthy again for the second year in a row. That’s the biggest thing for me, just being healthy.
“It means a lot,” he said of cracking the starting lineup. “It’s a goal that I’ve finally achieved now and I’m looking forward to what the season has in store for us, especially being a senior.”
Having a player with the talent and experience of Wood was a luxury to step into Willis’ spot.
“In his way, he’s a little different as a leader than others might be, but he has some genuine interest in his group and he works with some of the other guys,” coach Bill Snyder said. “He’s been on the field an awful lot. He has been a big help from the leadership standpoint.”
Wood and the rest of the defense had some difficulty stopping the run against Central Arkansas and will make that their focus as the No. 19 Wildcats face Charlotte at 11 a.m. Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
“They game-planned us well,” Wood said of UCA. “The plays they were getting us on, those were plays we didn’t see on film from them all last year. They schemed us really well, but I thought we made some good adjustments and played really well the second half.
“We have a lot of room for improvement and hopefully that will show in the next game.”
Contact Ken Corbitt at (785) 295-1123 or @KenCorbitt on Twitter.