MANHATTAN - There were 11 seconds, an eternity by a middle linebacker's standards, between question and answer; and the silence was more telling as each one passed.
For any linebacker, the ability to make split-second decisions is so crucial, it must become an instinctive act. Stuck in the middle of a defense, linebackers must decide between run and pass and then check through the ensuing list of possible responsibilities. They hurriedly process it all in the time a quarterback needs to take three or five steps backward.
As Kansas State's middle linebacker against No. 2 Oklahoma on Saturday, Marvin Simmons was dealing with those super-speed mental hurdles moments after getting the defensive play call from the sideline and relaying it to his teammates.
He couldn't afford to hesitate for 1.1 seconds in either duty, much less 10 times that.
But there he was after that 31-21 loss, facing a direct query: Why has his progress been slow at K-State?
Simmons' eyes shot to the floor, and the clock began to tick. Finally, 11 seconds later, Simmons sluggishly gave the only answer he thought appropriate.
"Just getting used to a structured system and, uh, playing into the system," he said, "just getting used to the way things go around here."
Apparently, things proceed inside the K-State football program in ways Simmons never envisioned. A former high school All-American and Southern California signee, Simmons was hyped as an instant star when he transferred from Compton (Calif.) Community College prior to last season.
Fast, instinctive and strong, he was projected by some as the Wildcats' middle linebacker for the next three seasons.
It didn't happen. He barely played last season, his grasp of the system being the cause listed by coaches time and time again.
Then came this season. With the struggles of last year behind him, Simmons was going to be the weak-side linebacker who played with the ferocity and talent the Wildcats had become accustomed to with Josh Buhl.
Not only did that not happen, things grew more testy than last year. A junior, Simmons missed practice time for what defensive coordinator Bob Elliott called, "a different thing every day."
There were problems with his attitude, focus, health and off-field issues. Even Simmons admits he that getting used to the discipline was a difficult task for him.
Things were so bad, Elliott and K-State coach Bill Snyder let their frustration become public. Elliott declined to comment on Simmons at one point but noted that injuries to Ted Sims and Maurice Thurmond forced the Wildcats to play him.
Snyder even jokingly referred to "mental health issues" in talking about Simmons, who privately fumed over the quote. It's one of the reasons he went more than six weeks without speaking to the media, a span that ended Saturday.
"It was frustrating," Simmons admitted, "but it kept me hungry, and it kept me humble. And it kept that fire in me."
Given the opportunity to play, Simmons has taken advantage. He was in competition with Thurmond, who is still coping with an injured ankle, at weak-side linebacker the last two weeks. Simmons performed better and received a majority of the playing time.
Then, with Sims sidelined after getting knocked unconscious at Kansas and Butler hobbled by an undisclosed injury, Simmons was asked to take on more responsibility and move back to middle linebacker.
He had a game-high 13 tackles as the Wildcats played well before allowing the Sooners to pull away late. Linebackers coach Chris Cosh said Simmons did a great job of managing the defense, helped by Sims and Butler's input.
"He's just got a knack for that middle spot," strong-side linebacker Brandon Archer said. "For Marvin, the biggest thing has always been a matter of focusing."
Could it be that Saturday's game that finally propels Simmons to a status for which he seemed preordained just more than a year ago?
"I think so, I think so," he said. "It was a big game, and I feel that big players do step up in big games."
On Tuesday, Elliott did not sound completely sold.
"At least he's practicing more; and he's out there more, which gives him a chance to improve," he said. "But he's still got a long way to go to be a consistent player for us."
In Simmons' defense, he's been stuck in the same spot every K-State linebacker has been in this season: a state of flux. The injuries have had Elliott and Cosh mixing and matching lineups all season.
Even now, Snyder said Simmons must be a two-position player, ready to move back outside. He might do that Saturday against Nebraska if Sims is healthy enough to start.
Like Elliott, Snyder has reason to pause when discussing Simmons' progress.
"As soon I say something good, you know which direction it goes," he said. "He has made the effort to put himself in the position to allow Chris to teach him how to play the game the way we really need for it to be played. He's been very responsive to that, and it's helped him. He's not without mistakes, but they're getting fewer and fewer throughout the season."
Simmons is quick to notice the compliment comes with the initial disclaimer, that Snyder seems to sense Simmons could falter again at any moment. He would like to argue, anyone can tell, but doesn't.
"I'm not perfect," he said. "I make mistakes. But I'm doing the right things out there now, and that's what I plan to keep doing."