Kansas State’s first bye week of the football season arrives at a good time for its special teams unit.
The Wildcats have looked impressive in most areas during their 3-0 start under new coach Chris Klieman, but they have been less than stellar on punt returns.
Phillip Brooks, Jordon Brown and Seth Porter have bobbled punts during the past two weeks and gifted opponents excellent field position with fumbles when K-State’s offense was preparing to come onto the field.
“You don’t want to drop any punts,” Klieman said Monday during the Big 12 teleconference, “and we’ve had a couple the last couple of weeks. This past week it was more an up-back situation we have to get squared away. Obviously, we can’t give the football away at the 50-yard line the last couple of weeks like we have.”
Those errors led directly to 10 points for Mississippi State on Saturday. The Wildcats pulled out a 31-24 road victory thanks to some fourth-quarter heroics, including a kickoff return touchdown from Malik Knowles.
Eliminating the punt return issues by the time K-State returns to the field against Oklahoma State on Sept. 28 will be a top priority over the next two weeks.
“I think we have the right personnel,” Klieman said. “We just have to continue to work at things and maybe make a little bit smarter decisions as far as when you have to come up on a punt that’s really difficult. We talked about it as a staff on Sunday when we came in, and it’s something we obviously have to get addressed and cleaned up. We can’t lose an opportunity to win a football game because of a poor choice or poor communication.”
Those issues seem easily correctable.
Brooks, a redshirt freshman receiver, was much better against Mississippi State than he was against Bowling Green, when he struggled to hold onto punts. Klieman had a private chat with Brooks after that game and told him he needed to be better with ball security. But he also supported him publicly, telling reporters that Brooks had too much talent to even consider replacing him on punt returns.
The bobbled punts against Mississippi State both happened on short kicks that K-State’s secondary return man tried to catch on the run. Brown, a senior running back, couldn’t hold onto a wobbly punt at midfield. Neither could Porter, a redshirt freshman receiver.
They could have made things much easier by simply calling for a fair catch or letting the ball bounce to the punting team. At least then the Wildcats would have taken possession.
One more issue K-State struggled with against the Bulldogs: block-in-the-back penalties.
“Big frustration,” Klieman said. “It’s something we talk about each week. We put them in situations in practice and stuff. It’s those hidden yards that in a tight football game sometimes come back to bite you. We had at least one of those situations. We had a big punt return and we lose 10 yards.”
K-State coaches can spend extra time eliminating those mistakes in practice this week.
“It’s something we’ll address when we get into today after their off day yesterday,” Klieman said. “We cannot make those critical errors in tight ball games. It’s something we’re going to continue to emphasize and try to find the right guys who aren’t going to make those mistakes.”