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Monday, September 9, 2013

Ex-walk-on Embree earns keep as KU’s standout returner

Kansas University punt returner Connor Embree heads up the sideline near the South Dakota bench during a return in the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Memorial Stadium. KU coach Charlie Weis thinks Embree, a former walk-on in his first scholarship season with the Jayhawks, can be one of the best returners in the Big 12 Conference this year.

Kansas University punt returner Connor Embree heads up the sideline near the South Dakota bench during a return in the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Memorial Stadium. KU coach Charlie Weis thinks Embree, a former walk-on in his first scholarship season with the Jayhawks, can be one of the best returners in the Big 12 Conference this year.

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The text messages kept coming.

Connor Embree already was starting to feel a bit homesick during his freshman year at UNLV in 2010, and the short notes from high-school teammate Pat Lewandowski weren’t helping.

“How you doing?” “Wish you were here.” “I wish we could play together again.”

The two played on the same team at Blue Valley West in Stilwell, where Embree, the quarterback and free safety, sometimes completed passes to Lewandowski, the tight end and defensive lineman.

In 2010, Lewandowski was at Kansas University, Embree was half a country away, and it was harder to keep ignoring Lewandowski’s repeated claim that Embree would fit right in at KU.

“It kind of just clicked,” Embree said. “I was like, ‘You know what, I’m just going to pull the trigger and get in there.’”

Things seem to have worked out since then.

Three years later — in the first game of his junior season at KU — Embree provided the Jayhawks with one of their best special-teams performances under second-year coach Charlie Weis.

The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Embree had four punt returns for 92 yards in Saturday’s season-opener against South Dakota; for comparison, KU’s entire team only had 90 punt-return yards during the entire 2012 season.

“He won’t always take every one to the house, but he makes good decisions and gets us 10 yards when we need it,” Weis said. “He will be highly rated in the conference once the year is over.”

For now, Embree’s also highly rated nationally.

It’s a small sample, but Embree’s 23 yards per punt return ranks him seventh nationally and fourth among players with at least four punt returns.

Embree believes that his ability to see openings is one of his greatest strengths as a returner.

“I’m not the fastest person, but I know how to set up my blocks,” Embree said. “It’s not just me. I had some good blocks (Saturday). I had some big lanes.”

Embree, who didn’t play a snap for KU a year ago, has earned his coaches’ respect quickly.

In August, during a meeting between two-a-day practices, Weis stood in front of the team and announced that a certain walk-on had been working hard, with the entire staff believing that he deserved a scholarship.

When Weis announced Embree’s name, the halfback was stunned.

“I was just cheesing real hard,” Embree said with a laugh. “I didn’t know what to do.”

All of Embree’s teammates rose from their chairs, with some of them screaming in celebration and others coming over to give him a hug.

“I won’t ever forget that,” Embree said. “That was an awesome experience.”

At the beginning of spring camp, Embree — the son of former Colorado coach and current Cleveland Browns assistant Jon Embree — said he heard that the punt-returner job was his to lose, and he was determined not to give it up.

He hasn’t, and in the span of a month, he has gone from walk-on to scholarship player to special-teams standout.

“I don’t think it’s crazy. I expect the most out of myself,” Embree said. “I never had doubts in my mind that I could play at this level. I always expected it. It just took, I think, a little more time than I wanted to. But I was patient and just kept working hard.”

Embree joked that there’s only one downside. Lewandowski, who kept sending texts three years ago, is now his roommate at KU. That makes it much harder to keep him quiet.

“I have to deal with him every day, which is sometimes a headache,” Embree said. “We always mess around. We’re goofballs. We always give each other a hard time.”

Comments

Brett McCabe 11 months, 3 weeks ago

"The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Embree had four punt returns for 92 yards in Saturday’s season-opener against South Dakota; for comparison, KU’s entire team only had 90 punt-return yards during the entire 2012 season."

That is a stunning stat. Congrats to Embree on his dedication and success. He was great on Saturday night.

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jhox 11 months, 3 weeks ago

I thought the same thing, Kingfisher. We had several stunning stats like that from last year. How we stayed reasonably competitive in several games against decent teams is beyond me.

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hawk316 11 months, 3 weeks ago

I had the same reaction. "Stunning stat," indeed.

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jahawker2004 11 months, 3 weeks ago

Great profile of the biggest surprise on this Jayhawk team. He wasn't just great on Saturday night, he was the player of the game for consistently setting up the offense with excellent field position.

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hawk316 11 months, 3 weeks ago

I love these kinds of "surprises"...a walk-on, works hard, earns a scholarship (what a special moment!), makes a significant contribution. Terrific stuff.

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akgjenkintown 11 months, 3 weeks ago

A lot had to do with the poor kicks, no hang time. Nevertheless, Embree handled some difficult punts and was key in giving the offense short fields.

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Andy Tweedy 11 months, 3 weeks ago

So was he a scholarship player at UNLV or did he walk on there, too? Just curious.

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Keith Hummel 11 months, 3 weeks ago

Great story about a great kid. Looking forward to watching him this year. Punt returning is just one of several areas where it's clear this team is a huge improvement over last years. Looking forward to some exciting football and a bunch of wins. That Rice game can't get here soon enough.

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jhawkrulz 11 months, 3 weeks ago

I do think he is an improvement, but that punter was horrible.

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Rivethead 11 months, 3 weeks ago

That punter was MVC player of the week the previous week. I think the fact that he was "horrible" had something to do with Josh Ford in his grill every punt.

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Brett McCabe 11 months, 3 weeks ago

Ford was incredible and will probably just get better. Though some of the punts were short, at least two were difficult to handle. Wasn't the long return on a punt that was short and tumbling along the ground? My feeble mind can't remember the details.

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jhawkrulz 11 months, 3 weeks ago

I've had longer drives with my putter than that guy had with some of the kicks he had. Last week or not, he had some really bad punts. One barely even made it over the linemen.

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Jonathan Allison 11 months, 3 weeks ago

A very good story for Embree, indeed, but I'm with akg on this one.

He showed great hands on a few bouncers, and he definitely showed good vision and running ability on his returns, but that was the worst punter we'll see all year. Every punt was returnable, the coverage team never was within 15 yards of him when the ball arrived. Also, we could have been burned big if his attempt to field a few of those bouncing punts had failed (in the future I expect most of the punts to be higher and longer).

It's always great to see walk-ons succeed, and great to see them earn scholarships as well. Embree, Jablonski, Wyman: all three are very inspirational. I bet that Embree can catch a pass, too.

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shelleysue 11 months, 3 weeks ago

How about we just congratulate the kid and feel great about what turned out to be the best overall part of the game on Saturday. In my opinion special teams is the most important part of the game and we not only saw a drastic improvement over last year - we saw an exceptional special teams performance all the way around. Quit talking about everything that was wrong with SD and talk about everything that was right with Conner Embree's performance. Give him the credit he deserves. These comments are totally frustrating. We all know what the non-conference schedule is, you don't need to point all this crap out and take away from what he did. Congratulations Conner on your scholarship and your awesome performance Saturday. I personally am proud to have someone like you as a Jayhawk. All you've done says so much about your character and I wish you all the best. I look forward to having more fun watching you tear up the field. Rock Chalk!

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Brett McCabe 11 months, 3 weeks ago

The special teams for KU are almost hard to believe. I wouldn't be surprised if we had as many touchbacks on Saturday as we had the entire last season, too. A walk-on kicker who just absolutely nailed a reasonably difficult kick. Great returns, a deflected punt and good punting on our end. The only difficulty I saw were a few bad snaps on punts.

You are right, special teams were far and away the best part of our game.

My goodness, what a turnaround!

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KURiggins 11 months, 3 weeks ago

Great post shellysue. You are absolutely right on two points. One the kid rocks. Stop talking about how weak SD was. There are NO gimmies in college or pro football. I don't care how much better one team is "supposed" to be. Period!!!! Ask K State. Secondly shelleysue that you I like that you pointed out how key specialteams are. How many games get decided by field position, i.e. good kicking punting returns etc...just look at the NFL this opening weekend. Hello Jets. They stink but won on a FG. BTW Jordy Nelson started as a walk on at K State..now he is a straight up baller getting paid

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shelleysue 11 months, 3 weeks ago

Another thing I want to mention on a different subject. I noticed Heaps waving the wheat as he ran off the field. LOVE IT!! Tells me he loves being at KU!

And yes - Jordy Nelson is awesome and he deserves it.

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Brett McCabe 11 months, 3 weeks ago

+100 on Heaps. Sorry....I'm not a big enough man to give anyone from Cow College a compliment.

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DaNeille Davis 11 months, 3 weeks ago

Well said, shelleysue. I wish these negative nellies would try to find the positives sometimes and not always the negatives! These fb players deserve our optimism and praise to keep building their confidence. I loved watching them play last wknd and can't wait for more! Win or lose! Rock chalk!

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kay_you 11 months, 3 weeks ago

The kicking team is far and away the most improved part of this team.

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