No time for mistakes: KU football makes punt return change

Kansas head coach David Beaty gives a pat on the back to Kansas wide receiver LaQuvionte Gonzalez (1) after Gonzalez fumbled a punt during the second quarter on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016 at Memorial Stadium.

As second-year head coach David Beaty prepares to take his Kansas football team into Bill Snyder Family Stadium for the first time, he understands the precise execution it would take to pull off a Sunflower Showdown upset in a venue named for the Kansas State head coach whose meticulous nature always seems to extract the most out of his players.

Mistakes won’t cut it on the road against the Wildcats (6-4 overall, 4-3 Big 12). With that in mind, the possibility of a special teams blunder inspired Beaty to make a change on KU’s punt return team. Junior LaQuvionte Gonzalez, who muffed a catch each of the past two weeks and has lost four fumbles on the season, is out. Beaty said either sophomore receiver Steven Sims Jr. or senior safety Fish Smithson will field K-State junior Nick Walsh’s punts Saturday in Manhattan (11 a.m. kickoff, FOX Sports 1).

“We’ve got guys back there that we think are explosive enough,” Beaty said, “but you’ve gotta value possession. That’s the number one thing. So we’ve gotta possess it first, and then we’ll worry about running with it.”

The head coach, whose relationship with Gonzalez dates back to their time together at Texas A & M, still loves the receiver’s explosiveness as a play-maker (57 catches, 602 yards, two touchdowns), but the production simply hadn’t translated on punt returns. In general, Kansas (2-9, 1-7) tends to make fair catches or elect not to return punts. The Jayhawks only have returned seven of their opponents’ 56 boots on the season. Gonzalez has returned six of those, and even taking into account a season-best 17-yard return Week 1 against Rhode Island, the 5-foot-10 junior has accumulated a net of -10 yards. Junior Derrick Neal took KU’s only other shot at a return, but gained no yardage.

Beaty admitted his disappointment in KU’s punt returns — or lack thereof — Tuesday at his weekly press conference.

“We haven’t really had any return game to speak of since that Ohio game (Week 2), and that’s not OK,” Beaty said. “We can’t do that, so we’re going to have to continue to work to find explosive returners, because (Kansas State) is a great example of it. I mean, these guys, they’ve got me so worried about their return game, it’s gonna steal away from other things that you have to put your time on, because there’s only so much time in the day.”

Kansas wide receiver Steven Sims Jr. (11) puts a juke move on Texas cornerback Kris Boyd (2) during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016 at Memorial Stadium.

To the coach’s point, KU’s punt return average of -1.43 ranks 128th (dead last) in the FBS. Wildcats sophomore Dominique Heath averages 14.2 yards per return, helping his team’s status as 15th-best nationally (11.8 yards a return).

Sims, KU’s leading receiver — 67 receptions, 818 yards, seven touchdowns — wants to help turn a special teams negative into a positive.

“I’m comfortable — very comfortable,” Sims said of returning punts. “I’ve been practicing all year, so I feel I’m ready to go.”

Sims knew Kansas hadn’t done much on that front, but didn’t recall the exact numbers until hearing them: seven returns, -10 yards.

“Negative 10?” Sims repeated. “It’s not good.”

Even so, Sims never has doubted Gonzalez’s ability. When his fellow receiver has dealt with turnovers, Sims said he always reminds him to have a short-term memory.

“Let it go,” is the key message of such conversations. “We need you to make a big play, bro.”

Could it be that Gonzalez’s energetic personality leads to him trying too hard, such as when he caught a Carter Stanley pass for a first down against Texas, and then had the ball punched out?

“I feel he was just tryin’ to make a play, which that’s Quiv every play, that’s me every play,” Sims said. “Just tryin’ to make a play. That’s why I’m not mad at him.”

Injury updates

Beaty reported he expects to have a couple more receivers available this week at K-State for the team’s season finale. The head coach said junior receiver Bobby Hartzog Jr., who has missed three straight games after starting the first eight, should be back. The same goes for sophomore Emmanuel Moore, who plays a key role on special teams.

Hartzog has 17 catches this season for 132 yards. Moore averages 15.1 yards on seven kickoff returns, with a long of 26.