Before he cemented himself as Kansas’ top receiver, before he tight-roped a sideline and hauled in the Big 12’s catch of the year, Nigel King pulled out a scouting report and fixed his eyes on a small group of numbers.
King does this each week, he says. A junior receiver, King is listed at 6 feet 3. Height is his best weapon. So when the Jayhawks sit down to study their next opponent, King wants to know one thing.
“I look at how big their defensive backs are,” King says.
Last week, the answer intrigued him. No. 5 TCU entered with a collection of smaller cornerbacks. Even before the game, King pictured himself making a big play.
He did not expect this.
During the third quarter of Kansas’ 34-30 loss to TCU, Kansas quarterback Michael Cummings zipped a pass toward King, who was flanked by two defensive backs and the sideline. Sensing the moment, King reached up with one hand and batted the ball into the air. He then continued the tip drill along the sideline, tapping the ball to himself twice more, before cradling the football and finishing a 78-yard touchdown strike.
Almost immediately, the highlight was zooming around Twitter and the Internet. One college football commentator compared it to “Cirque du Soleil.” Later that night, it was on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays.
“Mike puts the ball up,” King says. “I can make the play.”
More than a one-play wonder, King has emerged as Kansas’ go-to receiver, a true big-play threat for a program that has been devoid of even average receiving targets in recent years. A graduate transfer from Maryland, King also has one year of eligibility remaining. For Kansas and Cummings, who will travel to No. 21 Oklahoma on Saturday (11 a.m. on Fox Sports 1), the idea of having a No. 1 receiver coming back for 2015 has to be re-assuring, even if many aspects of the program are still in peril.
“I feel like it’s a big trust factor,” King says. “(Cummings) trusts me a lot to go up and make plays, and I feel like I can’t let him, or my teammates, down.”
So how did King go from not even on the roster to Kansas’ best receiver? Late last summer, King was not even on KU’s radar. He had spent three seasons at Maryland, including a redshirt year, and after receiving his undergraduate degree in the summer, he decided to look for a new school. Perhaps one that could use immediate help at receiver.
King returned home to Raleigh, N.C., where he met with his old high school coach, Otis Yelverton. They talked about possible schools, and Yelverton suggested Kansas, because KU receivers coach Eric Kiesau, in his first year in Lawrence, had coached one of Yelverton’s players in the past. Without even visiting Lawrence, King said yes to Kansas.
“He told me the best thing to do,” King says of his old coach.
King settled into the Kansas offense, but he really took off when Cummings replaced previous starter Montell Cozart at quarterback. Both Kiesau and interim coach Clint Bowen believed Kansas was under-utilizing King and senior tight end Jimmay Mundine. Both have flourished in recent weeks.
King, who had 33 catches and four touchdowns last season for Maryland, has 14 catches for 297 yards in the Jayhawks’ last three games. For the season, he has hauled in 28 catches while averaging more than 18 yards per reception. Last week, he became the first KU receiver to record consecutive 100-yard games since former star wideout Dezmon Briscoe in 2009.
“Quite frankly,” Bowen says, “it's a lot of Nigel just going up and making some pretty special plays.”
In some ways, King’s performance highlights just how dry the Jayhawks’ receiving corps has been over the last two seasons. Kansas played the entire 2012 season without a receiver hauling in a touchdown catch. Last season, the Jayhawks were led in receptions by senior running back James Sims (25), converted running back Tony Pierson (24) and tight end Jimmay Mundine (20). Among players that could be considered natural receivers, then senior Christian Matthews had 11 catches.
The numbers were bleak, of course. But they have been better with King and senior receiver Nick Harwell, another transfer, involved in the passing game. These days, King believes coming to Kansas was the right move. And he gives partial credit to Kiesau, who has provides daily lessons that have stuck.
“Catch with our eyes and not our hands,” King says, “Looking the ball in is what helps the most.”