LAWRENCE — When Kansas cornerback JaCorey Shepherd switched from wide receiver last year, he missed the feel of the ball in his hands.
The Jayhawks took care of that by having him return kickoffs, and Shepherd has responded.
His 26.8-yard return average ranks second in the Big 12 as Kansas prepares to meet West Virginia at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
The number received a boost in last week’s 42-6 loss at Oklahoma State.
Shepherd returned a kick 69 yards, and in a good-news, bad-news scenario, posted the fifth-best return day in school history, 169 yards. He had the opportunity to pile up the yards because the Cowboys frequently kicked.
But Shepherd made the most of it.
“My mentality is when I get the ball in my hands, I want to take it to the house,” Shepherd said.
That’s happened once this season, but not on a kickoff. Shepherd returned an interception for a touchdown at TCU.
He’s working on reaching the end zone on a kick, and coach Charlie Weis believes Shepherd has the ability.
“He is dynamic with the ball in his hands,” Weis said. “He’s fast, he’s physical, he can read openings and he runs with power.”
In a perfect world, Weis wouldn’t use Shepherd as a return man. The Jayhawks are thin in the secondary and need the able bodies to remain that way.
But Shepherd likes the action. He didn’t return kicks at Horn High in Mesquite, Texas, and last year returned two. This season, he has returned three kicks for at least 32 yards.
“I don’t look at it as a surprise,” Shepherd said. “I have high expectations for myself.”
Weis said Shepherd’s position switch was made because he had trouble catching the ball. But that doesn’t apply on kickoff returns. He’s camping under end-over-end boots with space in front of him, not chasing down spirals in traffic.
“Kickoff returns are not a very difficult thing to do as far as catching the ball is concerned,” Weis said. “You don’t have anybody right in your face.”
On team struggling to produce offense, Kansas needs every edge it can gain, and it has found a few on special teams.
Besides Shepherd, punter Trevor Pardula ranks second with a 45.4-yard average. Connor Embree is third in punt returns at 12.7.
A year ago, Kansas didn’t have a player finish in the top eight in any category.
The Jayhawks still have issues. Field goal kicking and kickoff coverage has been inconsistent, but Kansas might have a special-teams edge on Saturday.
West Virginia leads the Big 12 in net punting, and although the Mountaineers’ kick return numbers are solid, they have recorded 11 touchbacks. Kansas has only 10, but the Jayhawks figure to have the game’s best return man. He’s glad for the chance.
“I don’t get the ball much in my hands,” Shepherd said. “So when they gave me the opportunity I took it has a challenge. I was really interested in doing this.”