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Ex-walk-on Embree earns keep as KU’s standout returner

Kansas University punt returner Connor Embree heads up the sideline near the South Dakota bench during a return in the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Memorial Stadium. KU coach Charlie Weis thinks Embree, a former walk-on in his first scholarship season with the Jayhawks, can be one of the best returners in the Big 12 Conference this year.

Kansas University punt returner Connor Embree heads up the sideline near the South Dakota bench during a return in the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Memorial Stadium. KU coach Charlie Weis thinks Embree, a former walk-on in his first scholarship season with the Jayhawks, can be one of the best returners in the Big 12 Conference this year.

September 9, 2013

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The text messages kept coming.

Connor Embree already was starting to feel a bit homesick during his freshman year at UNLV in 2010, and the short notes from high-school teammate Pat Lewandowski weren’t helping.

“How you doing?” “Wish you were here.” “I wish we could play together again.”

The two played on the same team at Blue Valley West in Stilwell, where Embree, the quarterback and free safety, sometimes completed passes to Lewandowski, the tight end and defensive lineman.

In 2010, Lewandowski was at Kansas University, Embree was half a country away, and it was harder to keep ignoring Lewandowski’s repeated claim that Embree would fit right in at KU.

“It kind of just clicked,” Embree said. “I was like, ‘You know what, I’m just going to pull the trigger and get in there.’”

Things seem to have worked out since then.

Three years later — in the first game of his junior season at KU — Embree provided the Jayhawks with one of their best special-teams performances under second-year coach Charlie Weis.

The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Embree had four punt returns for 92 yards in Saturday’s season-opener against South Dakota; for comparison, KU’s entire team only had 90 punt-return yards during the entire 2012 season.

“He won’t always take every one to the house, but he makes good decisions and gets us 10 yards when we need it,” Weis said. “He will be highly rated in the conference once the year is over.”

For now, Embree’s also highly rated nationally.

It’s a small sample, but Embree’s 23 yards per punt return ranks him seventh nationally and fourth among players with at least four punt returns.

Embree believes that his ability to see openings is one of his greatest strengths as a returner.

“I’m not the fastest person, but I know how to set up my blocks,” Embree said. “It’s not just me. I had some good blocks (Saturday). I had some big lanes.”

Embree, who didn’t play a snap for KU a year ago, has earned his coaches’ respect quickly.

In August, during a meeting between two-a-day practices, Weis stood in front of the team and announced that a certain walk-on had been working hard, with the entire staff believing that he deserved a scholarship.

When Weis announced Embree’s name, the halfback was stunned.

“I was just cheesing real hard,” Embree said with a laugh. “I didn’t know what to do.”

All of Embree’s teammates rose from their chairs, with some of them screaming in celebration and others coming over to give him a hug.

“I won’t ever forget that,” Embree said. “That was an awesome experience.”

At the beginning of spring camp, Embree — the son of former Colorado coach and current Cleveland Browns assistant Jon Embree — said he heard that the punt-returner job was his to lose, and he was determined not to give it up.

He hasn’t, and in the span of a month, he has gone from walk-on to scholarship player to special-teams standout.

“I don’t think it’s crazy. I expect the most out of myself,” Embree said. “I never had doubts in my mind that I could play at this level. I always expected it. It just took, I think, a little more time than I wanted to. But I was patient and just kept working hard.”

Embree joked that there’s only one downside. Lewandowski, who kept sending texts three years ago, is now his roommate at KU. That makes it much harder to keep him quiet.

“I have to deal with him every day, which is sometimes a headache,” Embree said. “We always mess around. We’re goofballs. We always give each other a hard time.”

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