MANHATTAN — For the better part of two months, Jacardia Wright was Kansas State football's version of Elf on a Shelf.
Even though he emerged from exile three-plus weeks before Christmas, he arrived just in time to send the Wildcats into the postseason on a cheerful note.
Wright, a powerful true freshman running back, returned from injury to rush for 60 yards and a touchdown on Nov. 30 in the Wildcats' 27-17 victory over Iowa State in the regular-season finale. And thanks to NCAA rules, he did so with his redshirt year intact.
Wright had an impressive debut in the second game of the season, rushing for 59 yards on 14 carries in the Wildcats' 52-0 blowout of Bowling Green. But since he did not appear again until the Iowa State game he now is eligible for next Tuesday's Liberty Bowl showdown with Navy without exceeding the four-game redshirt maximum.
"He was banged up for about six weeks after (the Bowling Green) game," K-State coach Chris Klieman said of Wright. "He had a high ankle sprain, so he couldn't have played, or he was kind of in and out — so we kind of put him on the shelf for almost two months."
The plan, once Wright got healthy, was to use him in one of the last two regular-season games in order to assess his progress.
"Maybe he didn't fit in the Texas Tech game (plan), so we said we're going to get him into the (Iowa State) game early, get him a couple of carries and see how he does," said Klieman, who was rewarded with a 12-yard second-quarter touchdown run that put the Wildcats up 14-0, and also by a 37-yard carry in his six attempts. "Obviously he had a big run, had a couple of run-through tackles and he was a powerful kid.
"And that's what we thought when we recruited him, and I'm so excited because I know he has at least one more game left and that's what we have, so he'll play for us in the bowl game, too."
So for Wright, a 6-foot, 205-pounder from Decatur, Ill., the injury turned into a blessing in disguise. Should the Wildcats need him against Navy, he's good to go without forfeiting a year of eligibility.
"I do feel good about redshirting," Wright said. "I thought I was going to come in, be a true freshman and be able to run.
"But I'm glad I redshirted because I do have a lot to learn and this is my learning year. Hopefully next season is a bust (out) for me."
Just how much action Wright will see against Navy in the bowl game depends on the health of graduate transfers James Gilbert and Jordon Brown, who have combined for 1,065 yards and 10 touchdowns despite missing two games each and parts of others with injuries of their own.
Klieman said during a news conference last week that he expects both of the veterans to be ready to go and that they'll get first crack at the Midshipmen.
Wright was just thankful that he got his shot in the Iowa State game while also serving as an understudy to Gilbert and Brown.
"It's good to be able to watch JG and JB out there because you learn a lot from them," he said. "They're really good backs.
"Coach always told me to wait (for) my turn and I waited my turn (against Iowa State). I was able to go out there and play my hardest."
Though Wright was a highly-rated safety by recruiting services coming out of St. Teresa High School in Decatur, K-State was even more impressed with his numbers on offense, where his 8,821 career rushing yards and 133 touchdowns ranked second-best in Illinois prep history. But the learning curve in college was steeper than he anticipated.
"I've learned a lot," he said. "I came here out of high school and it was just a whole different game for me.
"So watching those seniors really improved my mind a lot on what college football is all about."
Brown, the North Carolina transfer who battled injuries the entire second half of the season, was back close to full strength for the Iowa State game and led the Wildcats with 91 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. But he sees a bright future for Wright as well as true freshman Joe Ervin, who in all likelihood will sit out the bowl game in order to preserve his redshirt year.
"We all know how much talent he has and it's finally beginning to come together for him and it makes everyone happy to see that the future is in great hands at the running back position," Brown said.
Quarterback Skylar Thompson, who will return next year for his senior campaign, agreed.
"Jacardia got an opportunity (against Iowa State) and I was really excited for him that he capitalized on it," Thompson said. "He kind of showed us what he's capable of doing in the future."
Now that the ankle injury is behind him, Wright already has his eye on the future.
"(The injury) was very tough because I've never been used to sitting on the bench, so when I got here it was just a huge humbling moment for me," he said. "I feel like (the future) is very special. We all know that.
"Our freshmen, hopefully we can do something special the next couple of years."