For starters, his dad is Kurt Warner. Growing up with a Hall of Fame quarterback as your dad isn’t something too many people can relate to. His father has been a mentor and a coach over the course of his career, which led him to Nebraska for the 2017 season. After a redshirt year and serving as a backup, Warner transferred to Kansas State in 2021 and put together a breakout year in 2022, when the Wildcats won the Big 12.
Warner spoke with Windy City Gridiron about his collegiate career, what goes into becoming a security blanket for a quarterback, his relationship with his dad, and more.
JI: You’ve had significant experience as a captain from your time in college. What kind of leader would you say you are?
KW: I would say I’m demanding leader. First and foremost, I tell them exactly what I want, when I want, to know that for the time being with me, that they gotta have it. I’ve said before that leadership isn’t something that you take; it’s given to you. It’s kind of that give and take, right? They give you the trust, and they give you their ability, and they trust you to do the best with it. Throughout my years, I’ve learned a lot about leadership, throughout my years as a captain, and in my years in college, and I think it all just comes down to that trust between the players — or the guys you are leading — and the leaders. [If] they don’t trust that you have their best interests in mind at all times, they’re not going to give you their all. They’re not going to give you that deep trust that you need in order to lead them. I think, as a leader, that you got to trust that your team will back you up and be right behind you as you go into battle.
JI: What kind of leadership do you think you respond best to from coaches?
KW: Like I said, I think that leadership is given, so I don’t think the leaders that I respond to are ones that come in and demand stuff right away without ever putting in anything that emotional bank account or any trust into that. I never responded well when guys just assumed that they’re a leader, and they tried to take it, and they tried to take that trust from you, because it’s not how it works. It works for me when you meet with somebody, and you talk to them, and you get that personal connection with them, so now you know what they respond to and how they respond to different stimulus. I think that that’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned in my time is that, with coaches I’ve had, with leaders that I’ve had, people that took the time to sit down and get to know you, get to know how you tick, and what really gets you going: those are the good leaders. Those are the guys you will follow anytime, and those are the guys I want in my foxhole.
JI: You transferred from Nebraska in 2021, and then Adrian Martinez transferred to K-State from there the year after. Did you play any recruiting role in that, and how was it to have a familiar face at QB coming back?
KW: No, I was trying to get away from [Adrian] as soon as possible (laughs). Nah, I’m kidding. [He’s] a great dude. It was a hard decision for me to leave [Nebraska], and I know it was just as hard for Adrian. He told me he was gonna hit the portal a little bit before he did, wnd we just talked about a little bit, and I told him he’d be a great fit here. Obviously, you saw the success he had on the field and all that, but in order for him to step in and be that leader that we all know he is and have that open role for him to be, I think it just all made sense throughout it at all. We talked about it for a long time. I said it’d be great to have him here, and he kind of hinted at it, like, “I would love to come,” and so I would say I played a role at the very beginning, but then once he got on campus, and he met with our coaches and saw the different culture that we had here versus Nebraska, I think that was what sold them and brought him in: hook, line, sinker.
JI: That’s gotta be helpful for both of you, having that chemistry already established heading into the season.
KW: Yeah, for sure. I’d love to be that guy that when things go wrong, when it looks like you don’t know the coverage rotation, you can always find me. I know I’m gonna be in the right spot, depending on what the play is. I loved having him back there, too, because I know exactly what he’s thinking. A lot of times we’re out there, it’s those little moments of communication that you kind of take for granted when you don’t have a quarterback that you’ve had out there on the field. He gives me that look, [and] I know exactly what he means whether he said, “hey, are you motioning?” Or, “hey, come motion over here,” or, “hey, you know what to do on this route?” It’s those little moments that you build over time. I talked about that trust and knowing that I understand exactly what he’s asking for me. I get to make sure I better do it.
JI: You put together your best season from a production perspective in 2022. What went into that step up, and what areas do you think you improved at the most over time?
KW: I think the biggest thing for me, it wasn’t a big leap in my abilities or a big training offseason. Obviously, I did work on a lot of things I needed to get better; I need to work on my releases, I need to work on my top of the route, my catching, my high pointing. There’s so many parts of the game that you can work on as a receiver, but I think the biggest thing for me in this case [is] they gave me the opportunities. They gave me the ability to be the player that I’ve been for however many years now. There wasn’t a massive jump. There wasn’t a realization this offseason, but it was just the point in the matter was they trusted me to go out there, don’t get involved, run the routes and be leaned on. That’s the biggest thing, and that’s the reason I transferred to Kansas State, because that helps this team win football games. The fact that they let me, and they allowed me, and they gave me these opportunities to do it, I’m forever grateful.
JI: In talking with teams, is there any consensus to what alignment they want you in, ‘X’, ‘Y’, ‘Z’? I know you moved around a bit at Kansas State.
KW: I mean, the more you can do. I’ve shown in my career that I can play both outside — to the field, to the boundary — and I feel like I’m playing the slot a little bit. I think personally, that at the next level, I think that I would thrive the best at slot. I think it’s where I’m the most comfortable. I think it’s where I can have the most success picking apart defenses, knowing where I have to be, diagnosing exactly where I gotta be, but I’ve shown that I can do everything. I can go from the outside and go up and get the ball. I’ve shown that I can go and beat somebody with technique at the top of the route, so just trying to do is everything you can, because the more you can do for a team, the better. I hope teams realize that I can do it all, but I would love to play in the slot. I really thrive [there].
JI: With your dad being a Hall of Fame QB, what was it like growing up with that background and experiencing him over the course of his career?
KW: I always tell people, I wish I was a little bit older, because when he had his last game — he retired after that Super Bowl [XLIII] — in those last few years of his career, I was about 10 or 11 years old around. I always wish I was a little bit older to really take full grasp of what I was doing, when he was [having the most] success, because I think it would have benefited me so much more. Going back and looking at it, it was such a big jump from when he was playing the NFL and seeing what he’s doing out there. The years after he retired, being my coach as much as he could for those next couple of years, was the biggest jump in my football career that I’ve ever had, just because I got to learn so much more and be close to the game with him playing and even closer when he was, because he was able to teach me everything that he wanted to teach me and have that time with me in a coach setting. People are always asking, “how was it having Kurt Warner as a dad,” and I say, “he’s the only dad I ever had”. Having him as a coach is definitely a little different.
JI: Have you ever picked his brain as a QB and try to determine what he looked for in his wide receivers?
KW: Yeah, 100%. I think that’s where most of the stuff I’ve learned from route running has actually been: from my dad. Just knowing what he looks for in a receiver on a certain play, where they should be at why they should be there and why that works against this play...I think that’s the first thing I ever knew about receiver, was basically how to get in the right spot for the quarterback.
JI: How do you spend your free time outside of football?
KW: I can do anything that I’m competing in. I think my girlfriend gets pissed at me sometimes, because I always gotta compete at something, but whether it’s Spikeball, or shuffleboard, or darts, or pickleball, or anything. as long as I’m competing, I’ll have fun, and I’ll be doing it. Even if it’s on video games, too, I just need to be doing. I can’t ever sit around. I’ve been trying to read this book for the last three months now, but I can’t, because I gotta move around. That’s probably what I would do the most in my off time.
JI: What kind of book have you been reading lately?
KW: Yeah, I actually got a book from my strength coach. I haven’t read it through [entirely], but it’s called The Seven Habits. It’s by Stephen Covey, I believe, and so just becoming a better person, self-improvement and stuff. It’s a great book, and I recommend it for everybody. It’s just tough for me to read sometimes, because I can’t be sitting down for more than 30 minutes at a time, so [I’ll get to] 10 pages at a time over and over again.
JI: Hearing your competitive streak, it sounds like you got that dawg in you.
KW: My girlfriend played shuffleboard [with me] last week, she would say that, too (laughs). But no, I think competition brings out the best in people. It brings out who they really are, a lot of time, [it] brings out if they’re passionate about what they do, if they really love what they do, or if they don’t, because things are really easy to love when they’re really easy. When you’re down or when you don’t want to do something, but you got to compete, I think it really shows your passion.
JI: Let’s say I’m an NFL general manager. What would I be getting if I drafted you to my team?
KW: I think that a lot of people tell you this, but they’ll get a hard worker. They’ll get the hardest worker in the room. In all my years of college football, I haven’t met anybody that’s worked harder than me to get where I wanted to be. I think that also, you’ll get somebody that loves the game. Like I was saying, I gotta win. I gotta have a chance to go out there and help my team win. I think that’s a big thing for me, is you got to have someone who loves what they do, or else they won’t really give it their all. They won’t give it 110% every time. I think the last thing you’re getting is — I’ve said this before — but you’re getting the smartest receiver in this draft class. I think that if you sit down with me for a couple minutes on a whiteboard, and let me talk to you through football, anybody would realize that. I think that that combination of those three things is a recipe for success at any level. You play football, I think that you can be really fast and jump really high and make spectacular plays, but if you don’t have those three things, you’re not able to do it and do it for a long time. I think that’s what I have, and a lot of people don’t have that combination of those attributes.
My 2023 NFL Draft guide is out now on my Patreon! Make sure to subscribe if you haven’t already. For just $1 a month, you’ll get access to my entire big board, a 7-round mock draft for each team, in-depth scouting reports, player comparisons and more!