Of all the candidates to be leading college football in sacks with four weeks left in the regular season, Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller would have been the most unlikely.
Mueller was a walk-on, not a five-star phenom like South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (who has two sacks this season). At 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, Mueller isn't a physical marvel like UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr (six sacks). Yet there is Mueller, tied with Marcus Smith of Louisville at 10.5 sacks, averaging 1.2 sacks per game to top the FBS in both categories.
Coming off a three-sack performance in the Wildcats' 49-26 upset at Texas Tech, Mueller won Big 12 defensive player of the week honors for the second time this season and was named a semifinalist this week for the Ted Hendricks Award, presented to the top defensive end in college football.
It has been a steady rise for Mueller, who was looking at offers from Division II and NAIA schools despite a high school career that included multiple defensive player of the year awards and All-State recognition as a senior. Instead, Mueller decided to find any avenue to play major college football, which meant running his own business to pay for his tuition at K-State before receiving a scholarship after emerging as a pass-rush specialist.
"That's what makes him so unique, that he has that never-say-die attitude in him," Mueller's high school coach, Mike Thomas, told the Topeka Capital-Journal. "He sets a goal for himself and he goes and tries to achieve it."
Mueller's relentlessness reflects across the stat sheet: 45 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, five pass breakups, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. It has also helped K-State overcome an ugly start to the season, losing the season opener to North Dakota State and to Texas, Oklahoma State and Baylor to open Big 12 play.
But the combined margin of defeat in those games? 27 points. Their combined record? 32-3, with the Bison and Bears both undefeated.
Since then, K-State has won three straight and could end the season with three more, with TCU and Oklahoma struggling on offense and Kansas already in full-blown basketball mode.
With Mueller, the embodiment of the hard-nosed approach head coach Bill Snyder used to turn the program around twice, leading the way, it would be anything but unlikely.