In case it wasn't obvious already, Friday's Kansas State media day went ahead and made things clear. A lot of the verbal bullets head coach Bill Snyder fired at some of his players for not showing up for "voluntary" summer workouts just weeks ago were aimed directly at his touted running back's forehead. The guesswork on that front is officially over, and not even Bryce Brown is attempting to spin it as friendly fire.
"I actually missed quite a few (summer workouts)," Brown said on Friday afternoon. "I was back and forth between (Wichita and Manhattan) doing my own thing, but now I'm here at camp. The past is the past, and I can't go back and change it."
Just two days into mandatory practice, what Brown does have the power to change is the depth-chart grapple in which he now finds himself. What was once easily dismissed as an empty motivational technique by Snyder, a master of creating faux-competition, is now starting to seem all too real.
An empty threat designed to push Brown, the former No. 1 recruit in the nation, on the practice field? Possibly so, but the sliver of a thought that there may actually be a question mark at tailback seems to be expanding. Of course, reading too much into Snyder's preseason chatter is risky, but if it is, indeed, all lip service, it's of a world-class variety.
"Not being in the best shape isn't good for him," offensive coordinator Dana Dimel said of Brown. "It's really a wide-open competition right now. It starts with John Hubert. It's his time to play now. We don't like having an every-down back, though. We like having a group to mix in, so you'll probably see a lot of guys in there."
Meanwhile, Hubert and junior college transfer Angelo Pease, the two players Dimel says have the best chance of taking the top spot away from the celebrated transfer, continue to stand in silence. On Friday, neither was bothered by a pack of reporters or probed about meeting expectations. Instead, that was reserved for Brown, who remained on an island alone.
And it didn't seem as though anybody was itching to build him a lifeboat.
"In all honesty, I can't sincerely tell you who the (running back) is going to be," Snyder said.
The K-State head coach, never without a compliment to lob in the direction of Brown's linebacker brother, Arthur, a team captain and often-praised leader, has been even more direct than Dimel when addressing the situation. So when Snyder was recently asked if the same leadership qualities and an elite work ethic show themselves in both siblings, the veteran head coach's tune changed from smooth jazz to a riff featuring a hint of blues.
"They're just two different people in that respect," Snyder said at Big 12 media day in Dallas. "Bryce hasn't put himself in the same position Arthur (Brown) has."
As for Brown's standing on the preseason All-Big 12 team despite never playing a snap in the league? Snyder weighed in on that too.
"That's your fault, not mine," he told reporters.
So let the contradictions begin. Brian Butler, a Wichita-area trainer who has worked with Brown since the Wildcat tailback was in eighth grade, says Brown has been more focused than ever since arriving in Manhattan last season. In his eyes, the competitive drive at work is that of Rocky Balboa.
"He's one of the hardest workers you'll ever meet," Butler said. "Nobody will outwork him."
Brown says the contrasting opinions can be explained away and points to a hip injury that has nagged him since high school. According to him, all those missed summer workouts were in the name of rehab, a process that was headed up by Butler, not the Wildcat training staff.
Here, it would seem, is where the problem lies.
"It was all about rehabbing and trying to get healthy," Brown said of his Wichita-based summer workouts. "I didn't feel great coming out of spring ball. My hip and my ankle were banged up, so my focus was on getting healthy. Now I'm just trying to get back in tip-top shape and understand the offense."
Missed summer workouts, minor injuries and a somewhat unhappy head coach, Brown takes it all into account, and yet, his confidence remains. Does he expect to line up at running back for the first play of the 2011 season?
"Yes, I do," he said. "It all just depends upon me and how I'm working and how I'm performing. In the end, it's all about performance. I have confidence in myself that I'll be the starting back, but I also understand that we have other great backs."
Still, Snyder stands by his decree. To him, this is a legitimate competition. To him, Brown's Wichita City League rushing record, the five stars that sit on his Rivals.com profile and the fact that he was once considered the very best prep player in America mean about as much as his zodiac sign.
Whether or not he'll keep playing it when game day No. 1 arrives is unknown, but at least for now, the veteran head coach's drum will keep beating away.
"I wouldn't say it was a competition if it wasn't the case," Snyder said. "We're not going to start the season now, so we don't need (a starter). We'll have one when we have to have one."