LAWRENCE — Mark Mangino doesn’t look the other way very often. But after a full year of watching Kansas kicker Jacob Branstetter boot the ball away and immediately become a card-carrying member of the kickoff coverage team, it appears that Mangino has accepted that the 5-foot-10, 182-pound Branstetter is going to do his own thing.
“He takes off down the field (thinking) I gotta save the day like Superman, or, what was it, Underdog, here I am to save the day,” Mangino said. “I’ve told him — I’ve quit telling him — I hope he doesn’t get hurt doing it because we’re really thin at that position.”
Branstetter may not have distinguished himself yet with his right foot — his career-long field goal is only 34 yards — but he has tallied nine career tackles on the kickoff team. That total includes two tackles of Missouri’s Jeremy Maclin in last year’s Border War victory, one of which came in the game’s final minute when Maclin nearly pulled away for a game-winning return.
“My general goal,” Branstetter said, “is that nobody is taking one to the house on me.”
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It’s probably a good thing Mangino has given up trying to protect his kicker from bodily harm. Branstetter has no intention of backing off.
“That’s why we’re athletes,” Branstetter said. “We gotta take those chances. I understand maybe if I miss (a tackle) he might go for a touchdown, but I haven’t missed yet. I’ll keep testing my luck, I guess.”
And Mangino will keep cringing — even though Branstetter put on 15 pounds during the offseason.
“Now he’s really cocky,” Mangino said.
Branstetter, a junior, plans to put on more weight next offseason. If he gains too much, Mangino might have another problem on his hands.
“If I weigh 200 in my life,” Branstetter said, “then I am going to be disappointed, because then I should have played free safety.”
Free safety. Yes, that’s exactly where Branstetter wishes that he could be. It’s the position he played as a freshman at MacArthur High in Lawton, Okla., before injuring his collar bone at the end of that season. Branstetter loved to play basketball, too, so he decided to focus only on kicking. Still, he never saw himself like other kickers.
Branstetter’s need for aggression began when he was a boy. His mother, Diane, wouldn’t let him play football until fifth grade, but Branstetter feels that he only got tougher by playing soccer instead.
“I broke bones and got concussions,” Branstetter said. “When I was little, I fell off a skateboard and got a concussion. I never really had fear of anything. I guess I just kind of feel like if it’s my time to get hurt or my time to go down, it’s my time.”
Earlier this season, Branstetter’s time arrived. Branstetter was roughed on a field goal attempt in the first half at UTEP and spent the rest of the game dazed and confused.
“I felt like something was a little different,” Branstetter said. “At one point in the game, I kept asking someone, ‘How did we get to 20 points?’ I thought, ‘Did I miss an extra point?’æ”
Branstetter actually had made two chip-shot field goals. Later in the game, he missed attempts from 38 and 33 yards. Despite his woozy head, the misses bothered him.
“If I had the ability to walk out on the field and take the steps and kick the ball, I should have made it,” Branstetter said. “That’s all there is to it.”
With that attitude, it’s no wonder that Mangino has grown fond of Branstetter.
“I think the world of the kid,” Mangino said. “He’s so doggone competitive.”
Sharp sharp yet? — During Monday’s Big 12 teleconference, KU coach Mark Mangino said that he felt “pretty good” about the progress of injured running back Jake Sharp. But on Tuesday at KU’s weekly news conference, Mangino was less optimistic about Sharp’s chances to play against Iowa State.
“I think we all thought he would get on the practice field today and we would cut him loose, but unfortunately, it has not developed that way,” Mangino said. “I think by Thursday’s practice, if he can go out and execute everything at full speed, 100 percent, we will play him. However, if there is any sign that he is not 100 percent or that he cannot play to the best of his abilities, we will not play him.
“We will consider using him in a limited role, but, to be honest, someone would have to convince me that it is in his best interest. I want it where he can play the whole game or be a starter and maybe have a series off or take breaks here or there, but I want him to be completely functional. He is a guy whose speed and quickness are his assets, and if he doesn’t bring those to the field, he is not a 240-pound running back, so we have to have him feeling really good.”
Clearly, it won’t be known whether Sharp will play until Saturday.