It took Drew Wiley three seasons to become a regular contributor on Kansas State's interior defensive line.
As a junior, he filled the role admirably, providing solid relief for seniors Trey Dishon and Jordan Mittie while essentially auditioning for 2020.
So, with the Wildcats in the unenviable position of having to replace both starting defensive tackles — and in a year where the coronavirus pandemic wiped out spring practice, no less — it became critical for Wiley, a senior from Vinton, Iowa, to step up to the challenge.
At 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, he had proven himself as an effective run stopper, deployed primarily in short-yardage situations as a true freshman in 2017 and again the following season. Last year, as part of the rotation with Dishon and Mittie, he recorded 16 tackles, including the first two for loss.
But that was just a preview of what was to come for Wiley, who in his first six career starts this season for the 4-2 Wildcats also has become a feared pass-rusher. He was one of the few bright spots last Saturday in K-State's 37-10 loss — the first in five league games — at West Virginia.
"I thought Drew Wiley played his tail off," K-State coach Chris Klieman said after Wiley made a career-high seven stops, including 2.5 for loss and a sack against the Mountaineers. "I thought Drew Wiley was really, really good.
"Drew is having an all-conference season, and I'm really happy with the way he's playing right now."
The numbers bear him out. Not only has Wiley passed his previous season high with 18 tackles, but he leads the Wildcats in sacks with 3.5 and tackles for loss with 7.0 — both good for third place in the Big 12.
"I think he's been the (most valuable player) of our defense so far this year," Klieman said. "He plays a ton of snaps. He loves to play the game and that's what's so fun to watch."
In their first career starts in the season opener — a 35-31 loss to Arkansas State that was followed by four straight Big 12 victories — Wiley and fellow first-time starter Eli Huggins each had a sack, allaying some of the fears that the tackle position would be a weak link on defense.
"For me it was just an amazing opportunity," Wiley said after that first start. "It means a ton that coach Tui (defensive line coach Mike Tuiasosopo) had that kind of trust in us to go out there and make those plays.
"I think that was a good starting point. I'm just looking forward to and excited for future opportunities to kind of build off what we were able to do along the defensive line (against Arkansas State)."
Klieman has not been disappointed.
"We knew he was going to be a good player this year. We were really confident in that," Klieman said. "But he's been, I think, our most productive guy for six games, and I'm so excited that in his senior season he's having this great a year.
"Drew loves to practice, he loves to compete, loves to go to meetings, likes to go to the walk-through (and) has a great time with the guys. He's disruptive, he's tough to block one-on-one, is doing things in the run game, (and) doing things in the pass game. And we've started to design a lot of things around him because he's such a playmaker."
The Wildcats had two sacks and nine tackles for loss against West Virginia, but also gave up 485 yards total offense.
"Coming into the game, we knew we were going to have to be pretty physical," Wiley said. "Coming into the game, we were just trying to make something happen up front.
"I wish we could have gotten more of it. I thought the front four handled things pretty all right, especially in the run game, but obviously there needs to be more of it."
The Wildcats don't have any time to waste with No. 14-ranked Oklahoma State visiting Bill Snyder Family Stadium at 3 p.m. Saturday.
"We've got to come ready to work (Sunday)," Wiley said immediately after the West Virginia game. "We've got a lot of work to do. Everybody can get better, and we need to come together as a team and really just prepare harder and make sure we're ready for the next one."
Three more Wildcats to transfer
Three more K-State players have entered the NCAA transfer portal.
Senior safety Jonathan Alexander, redshirt freshman running back Thomas Grayson and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Matthew Pola-Mao are no longer part of the team, an athletic department spokesman confirmed Wednesday morning.
All three had opted out of the season.
The only one to play for the Wildcats was Alexander, a transfer from Kilgore College in Texas who appeared in 12 regular-season games, recording 25 tackles, including 4.0 for loss, with a sack. He also broke up two passes, forced a fumble and recovered one.
Alexander tested positive for COVID-19 over the summer and said at the time that experience led his decision to opt out.
He said via his Twitter account that he will move on as a graduate transfer after receiving his degree in December.