LAWRENCE — In early August, during one of the first weeks of fall camp, Kansas coach Charlie Weis told junior Connor Embree that he had earned a scholarship.
At the time, it appeared to be one of those ceremonial gestures that you often see in college football. A kid had worked hard, kept his head down and earned a spot in a program. Embree, the son of former Chiefs assistant Jon Embree, had arrived at KU as a transfer from UNLV in 2011. He sat out a year, didn’t play a down last season, and if you’re being generous, mostly appeared to serve as depth at a loaded running back position.
But it turns out Weis had a little more in mind when he awarded Embree one of KU’s last available scholarship slots. Embree won the starting job as KU’s punt returner, and then made the most of the opportunity during a 31-14 season-opening victory over South Dakota on Saturday night.
Embree averaged 23 yards on four punt returns, and set up a touchdown drive with a 42-yard punt return in the first half.
“When I put him back there, everybody said, ‘Connor Embree?’ ” Weis said. “But that’s who Connor Embree is.
“Connor Embree makes good decisions, and after he makes good decisions, he usually makes the first guy miss. He’s not going to run 4.5 and take every one to the house, but he’s usually going to get you 10 yards or more.”
In a season opener in which the Jayhawks were convincing winners — but certainly not dominant — Embree’s performance highlighted the most promising development of the night: Special teams.
Senior receiver Josh Ford got his mitts on a punt in the first half. Sophomore kicker Matthew Wyman drilled a 45-yard field goal in the second half — a kick that would have qualified as the Jayhawks’ longest field goal in 2012. And punter Trevor Pardula averaged 42.5 yards on four punts while booting one kickoff through the end zone.
For Weis, who suffered through the ignominy of a brutal kicking game last season, it was a welcome sight. Especially the raucous reaction after Wyman’s field goal.
“I found it hysterical,” Weis said. “I’m sitting there with the headset, and I said, ‘Listen to the crowd when he makes this field goal.’ It was almost as big as when Pardula kicked the second kick out of the end zone. Life’s little pleasures.”
For Wyman, a walk-on who won the kicking job this spring, it was the first successful field goal of his career — dating back to high school. As a senior at Andover High School in the Detroit area, Wyman was a soccer standout who served as a part-time punter and kickoff specialist on the football team.
But with the Jayhawks’ season still in its infancy, and Weis still searching for stable positives as KU prepares for Rice this Saturday, it was certainly something to grow on.
In the offseason, Weis reconfigured the special-teams duties, assigning each assistant coach one area to oversee. The idea was to simplify the process — even if adding a few more coaches to the task could cause some chaos. After one game, Weis said, the new strategy appeared to pay off.
“Everyone was worried about how this was going to play out with all the coaches involved in special teams,” Weis said. “The only error was a coaching error when we had 12 guys on the field. That was a miscommunication between the defensive coaches and the special teams. I’ll take the blame for that one.”
Miller picks up where he left off — Darrian Miller wasn’t quite sure how it would feel. But he didn’t think he’d feel like a freshman again. Two years ago, he had rushed for more 500 yards as a true freshman running back at Kansas. But after leaving the KU program last year for off-the-field reasons, Saturday was Miller’s first game back at Memorial Stadium.
“I felt like I got the pre-game jitters out two years ago,” Miller said. “But, like, they came back.”
If the nerves were severe, Miller didn’t show it. He finished with 72 yards in 14 carries while spelling starter James Sims. Miller’s presence added another layer of depth to the KU backfield, and the result was a balanced, nuanced attack.
Sims (16 carries) and Miller handled the bulk of the load. But junior Tony Pierson (five carries and two catches) and senior Taylor Cox (six carries for 44 yards) also got involved. Finally, junior Brandon Bourbon added a touchdown run in the second half.
Weis said the breakdown of carries didn’t quite match how he envisioned it, but he had hoped for a balanced effort.
“It just felt good,” Miller said, “to be running around with the team.”