MANHATTAN — For a team that values punt returns, it seems strange that Kansas State has signaled for so many fair catches lately.
The Wildcats ranked first nationally in punt-return yardage after senior receiver Tramaine Thompson gained 94 yards on two punts against Louisiana-Lafayette, then he legitimized that production with a 40-yard return against Texas. K-State consistently looks to its punt-return unit to provide quality field position and the occasional touchdown, usually out-performing the opponent.
“At K-State, part of our identity is special teams,” receiver Kyle Klein said. “We take pride in our return unit, because that is part of what we do.”
Yet, during the past two games, the Wildcats have attempted one punt return and it lost yardage. Against Oklahoma State, with senior safety Ty Zimmerman returning punts, K-State used 10 defenders to try and block every Baylor punt while Zimmerman asked for a fair catch when they were unsuccessful. Though Weston Hiebert slipped through and blocked one of the punts, K-State coach Bill Snyder wants a more balanced approach.
“You would like to be able to do both,” Snyder said. “One of the things that gets overlooked sometimes, when you attempt to make a block ... it forces the protection to not cover as quickly and consequently it does give you some opportunities for a return. We had some opportunities for returns, but Ty was back there and was on the secure side in terms of fair catches.
“Yes, we could have returned them, but we didn’t. We got the block, and the block was probably worth a couple small returns.”
Big returns might once again be a possibility when K-State faces West Virginia on Oct. 26. Thompson and Tyler Lockett, a junior receiver who serves as the team’s main kick returner and backup punt returner, have missed the majority of the past two games, but Snyder has said they will likely play against the Mountaineers.
In their absence, K-State has looked timid on returns.
“It will be a drastic change,” Klein said. “Anytime you lose a guy like Tramaine, you are trying to make up ground in both talent and experience. He has been our punt returner for so long that we haven’t had a whole lot of other guys who have had game reps. You can’t just throw a guy in there and tell him to start returning punts at that level. It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
K-State coaches worked with Zimmerman, who has returned punts in the past, to develop his return skills before the Baylor game. But he was cautious without the help of blockers, signaling for a fair catch even when he caught the ball with space to run.
Thompson likely would have been more aggressive. Lockett would have helped on kickoff returns.
Their absences have been felt on offense, but they have been equally missed on special teams. The Wildcats are ready to watch them return kicks and punts again.
“We get real excited when they make a big play on special teams,” fullback Glenn Gronkowski said. “When we see that, we are all jumping up and down, I love that feeling. That gets me going and gets me fired up. It makes all of us want to go down and score.”