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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

No time for mistakes: KU football makes punt return change

Kansas head coach David Beaty gives a pat on the back to Kansas wide receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez (1) after Gonzalez fumbled a punt during the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016 at Memorial Stadium.

Kansas head coach David Beaty gives a pat on the back to Kansas wide receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez (1) after Gonzalez fumbled a punt during the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016 at Memorial Stadium.

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As second-year head coach David Beaty prepares to take his Kansas football team into Bill Snyder Family Stadium for the first time, he understands the precise execution it would take to pull off a Sunflower Showdown upset in a venue named for the Kansas State head coach whose meticulous nature always seems to extract the most out of his players.

Mistakes won’t cut it on the road against the Wildcats (6-4 overall, 4-3 Big 12). With that in mind, the possibility of a special teams blunder inspired Beaty to make a change on KU’s punt return team. Junior LaQuvionte Gonzalez, who muffed a catch each of the past two weeks and has lost four fumbles on the season, is out. Beaty said either sophomore receiver Steven Sims Jr. or senior safety Fish Smithson will field K-State junior Nick Walsh’s punts Saturday in Manhattan (11 a.m. kickoff, FOX Sports 1).

“We've got guys back there that we think are explosive enough,” Beaty said, “but you've gotta value possession. That's the number one thing. So we've gotta possess it first, and then we'll worry about running with it.”

The head coach, whose relationship with Gonzalez dates back to their time together at Texas A & M, still loves the receiver’s explosiveness as a play-maker (57 catches, 602 yards, two touchdowns), but the production simply hadn’t translated on punt returns. In general, Kansas (2-9, 1-7) tends to make fair catches or elect not to return punts. The Jayhawks only have returned seven of their opponents’ 56 boots on the season. Gonzalez has returned six of those, and even taking into account a season-best 17-yard return Week 1 against Rhode Island, the 5-foot-10 junior has accumulated a net of -10 yards. Junior Derrick Neal took KU’s only other shot at a return, but gained no yardage.

Beaty admitted his disappointment in KU’s punt returns — or lack thereof — Tuesday at his weekly press conference.

“We haven't really had any return game to speak of since that Ohio game (Week 2), and that's not OK,” Beaty said. “We can't do that, so we're going to have to continue to work to find explosive returners, because (Kansas State) is a great example of it. I mean, these guys, they've got me so worried about their return game, it's gonna steal away from other things that you have to put your time on, because there's only so much time in the day.”

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Kansas wide receiver Steven Sims Jr. (11) puts a juke move on Texas cornerback Kris Boyd (2) during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016 at Memorial Stadium.

To the coach’s point, KU’s punt return average of -1.43 ranks 128th (dead last) in the FBS. Wildcats sophomore Dominique Heath averages 14.2 yards per return, helping his team’s status as 15th-best nationally (11.8 yards a return).

Sims, KU’s leading receiver — 67 receptions, 818 yards, seven touchdowns — wants to help turn a special teams negative into a positive.

“I’m comfortable — very comfortable,” Sims said of returning punts. “I’ve been practicing all year, so I feel I’m ready to go.”

Sims knew Kansas hadn’t done much on that front, but didn’t recall the exact numbers until hearing them: seven returns, -10 yards.

“Negative 10?” Sims repeated. “It’s not good.”

Even so, Sims never has doubted Gonzalez’s ability. When his fellow receiver has dealt with turnovers, Sims said he always reminds him to have a short-term memory.

“Let it go,” is the key message of such conversations. “We need you to make a big play, bro.”

Could it be that Gonzalez’s energetic personality leads to him trying too hard, such as when he caught a Carter Stanley pass for a first down against Texas, and then had the ball punched out?

“I feel he was just tryin' to make a play, which that’s Quiv every play, that’s me every play,” Sims said. “Just tryin’ to make a play. That’s why I’m not mad at him.”

Injury updates

Beaty reported he expects to have a couple more receivers available this week at K-State for the team’s season finale. The head coach said junior receiver Bobby Hartzog Jr., who has missed three straight games after starting the first eight, should be back. The same goes for sophomore Emmanuel Moore, who plays a key role on special teams.

Hartzog has 17 catches this season for 132 yards. Moore averages 15.1 yards on seven kickoff returns, with a long of 26.

Comments

Brett McCabe 4 months ago

It's the last game of the season. Don't get someone hurt trying to match-up with Bill Snyder.

I couldn't believe that Q went back out after muffing the punt early in the UT game. Our "punt return" has been non-existent all season. Might as well rush 11.

Stay out of the return game, Beaty. You seem to get in everyone's head.

Edward Daub 4 months ago

I really like Coach Beaty's energy and enthusiasm! However, he has to learn to delegate these decisions to his assistants. Joe DeForest is a good special teams coach and he should be in charge of "all" aspects of special teams, including punt returners. Beat KState and Snyder will retire for a second time!

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Humpy Helsel 4 months ago

I can't believe it took him all season to make this decision. I've been asking (actually yelling at TV) why he keeps using him back there for punts based on his muffs. Ball security is number one on punt and kick off returns. Return yardage is gravy. Get someone back there who can reliably catch the ball. We actually have a defense that can force punts. How demoralizing for the defense to force a punt only to have it muffed and have to go back on the field. That business leads to fourth quarter blowouts due to the defense being exhausted.

John Gorski 4 months ago

I thought he pulled QG once before when he fumbled a couple earlier in the season. Then again that could have been on Kick off returns.

Randy Bombardier 3 months, 4 weeks ago

A little late but a good move. I think the defense matches up well against k-state. Make them pass. Shut down there run game and we have a chance. That's how WVA beat them. 9 guys in the box. But stuff the tight end or fullback coming out on that faux pass play they've got, the closest thing Snyder has to trickeration. Would not hurt us to use a little trickeration ourselves. And please no more pooch kicks by the QB!

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