Kansas coach David Beaty claims his leg is sore, and for good reason.
Each day, he says he punts about 50 times while trying to get his returners some gamelike conditions in practice.
“We work so hard on that,” Beaty said, “and for us not to be progressing there, that’s not OK.”
“Not progressing” is actually a nice way to put it. The Jayhawks are in line to have one of the worst punt-return units in NCAA history if they aren’t able to produce in Saturday’s season finale at Kansas State.
KU has seven punt returns this season for a combined minus-10 yards. In the previous eight seasons, no NCAA team has ever finished with a negative total in punt return yardage.
The Jayhawks are set to make Big 12 history as well. In the conference’s 21 seasons, the lowest punt return total was 25 yards by Baylor in 2008. Second-lowest on the list was KU with 26 yards last season.
Not a good sign for Beaty, who has often preached the importance of special teams during his two years in Lawrence. Keep in mind, Beaty also named himself the punt return coach after Week 2 against Ohio. Receivers coach Jason Phillips oversaw the group before that.
“We haven’t really had any return game to speak of since that Ohio game, 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.”
Beaty promised a change this week, saying receiver Steven Sims will be back to return punts.
The team’s previous starter, LaQuvionte Gonzalez, has had issues with ball security. He’s had four fumbles on punts alone (three lost), which included one off his helmet that rolled out of bounds last week against Texas.
“It’s hard to fix something that you don’t see in practice,” Beaty said. “Quiv, at practice, he is by far the most solid, steady. He’s done a terrific job. And up until this point, really last week and this week, he actually did a good job. I can’t put my finger on it.”
Derrick Neal also fumbled a punt earlier this year, meaning KU has lost four fumbles in addition to its negative return yardage. Because of that issue, Gonzalez often seemed content to call for fair catches. As a result, the Jayhawks’ seven punt returns is tied for sixth-fewest nationally.
“Our guys know when it should be a fair catch, and we need to make sure we capitalize when the punter makes a mistake,” Beaty said. “You know what those mistakes look like.”
KU only has to look at the opposite sideline to see there’s an advantage to be gained.
Kansas State ranks 15th nationally with an 11.9-yard punt-return average, and Beaty admits he’s spent extra preparation time trying to make sure his team doesn’t allow a long gain.
“Their return game is phenomenal, as usual,” Beaty said. “They just seem to reload with returners.”
KU finds itself in a different place, at this point simply looking to go forward instead of backwards.
“We’re going to have to continue to work,” Beaty said, “and move on until we get the right guy.”