There is a reason most of Kansas State’s kickoffs resulted in touchbacks last week.
A big reason.
Mitch Lochbihler, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound punter who could easily double as a tight end, stepped in for injured kicker Matthew McCrane and put his size to work, booting the football with enough force to land behind the end zone and bounce into the stands.
Lochbihler gave Oklahoma State no chance to return the ball on six of his seven kickoffs, which forced the Cowboys to start a majority of their possessions from the 25-yard line following touchbacks. It was a radical change for K-State’s kickoff unit, which had previously produced 15 touchbacks in 48 attempts with McCrane and Ian Patterson kicking deep.
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“He has got a heck of a leg,” said Patterson, who handled field goals Saturday in place of McCrane. “We have seen him hit kickoffs ever since he has been here like that. This week, he really put his nose to the grindstone and started working on it.
“When you get a 6-7 guy with any sort of strength and that leverage, it is ridiculous to see what the ball can do.”
K-State fans will see a lot more of Lochbihler as the regular season winds down. K-State coach Bill Snyder is uncertain when McCrane will return, and that will give Lochbihler, normally a backup punter, more opportunities to prove he is the team’s best option on kickoffs.
That’s assuming he hasn’t proved that already.
No other kicker on the roster can match his power.
“The only thing that held him back was inconsistency,” Snyder said. “About the time you would think he was ready to make a move he would have those practices where he kicked the ball all over the place. In pregame warm-ups the other night, he was really hitting the ball well and (special-teams coordinator) Sean (Snyder) said, ‘That is who I want to go with.’ And we did.
“I am pleased with his approach to gain the consistency to be a really, really fine kicker. As he embraces more of that I think he will be really good.”
Snyder also likes what he sees from Patterson on field goals.
Patterson, a senior, has made 5 of 6 extra points in relief of McCrane, and connected on his only field-goal attempt, a 43-yarder against Oklahoma State.
“We try to keep two guys prepared at all times,” Patterson said. “I knew after (McCrane’s injury) I would have a chance at field goals. I’m glad I ended up on top, ending with a make.”
Patterson was also prepared to handle kickoffs against the Cowboys, after booting 17 in K-State’s first eight games. But he is now free to focus on field goals with Lochbihler’s emergence.
His next challenge will be learning to keep the ball in play with higher kicks. Snyder likes touchbacks, but he prefers kickoffs that hang in the air and travel a yard or two into the end zone, enticing the opposing team into a return that K-State is well-positioned to defend.
“I like our cover unit,” Snyder said. “They have normally been pretty good. They are an aggressive unit. We have had a lot of stops within the 20-yard line. That would be the ideal situation for us. Last week was just a little different.”
With Lochbiler handling kickoffs, different could become the new normal.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett