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An Underrated Problem: Kickoff Returner

Will we see Dezmon Briscoe return any kicks like this one in 2009?
Will we see Dezmon Briscoe return any kicks like this one in 2009?

Coming into this season, there seems to be two primary problems that preseason magazines are focusing on: interior line play and linebackers. This makes sense, of course, as we lost all 6 starters in those two positions. However, there are more than just two potential holes on this team. This week, we'll be documenting all of these "mini-issues", if you will, with today's topic being kick returner.

Why It's a (Potential) Problem

Because field position matters, man. This may seem superfluous as a real "problem", and it probably is. Still, it helps to have a shorter distance to go. Always. Particularly in our offense, where we love nickel-and-diming our way down the field. It makes the offense's job that much easier if, say, we are starting at the 32 every time out, as opposed to the 22.

If you need evidence, just check out the differences between 2007 and 2008. Obviously, much more important things changed between the two seasons, most notably personnel and schedule, but there was also a significant difference in kickoff return yardage. In 2007, the Jayhawks averaged 25.2 yards a return, good enough to rank 7th in the country. Marcus Herford received plenty of accolades for this, and was even the number-one ranked kick returner in the country going into 2008 according to Phil Steele. But he didn't play up to such a high ranking, as we fell all the way to (you won't believe this) 118th in the country. The average kickoff return fell down to 17.5 yards a return, and only Wisconsin was more anemic in returning kickoffs.

And keep in mind, that fantastic finish in 2008 is buoyed by the absolutely fantastic game Dez Briscoe had in Arrowhead against Missouri; 7 returns for an average of 27.9 yards per return. So, Herford's personal numbers are even worse.*

* Now, I don't want to get into the differences between the two years, or why Herford performed so fantastically one season then so putridly the next. I don't really know, but my guess would be the classic small sample size reason. Given how little chances they get, kickoff returners are probably more volatile to small sample size flukes than, say, a running back piling up 30 carries a game. For you baseball fans out there, think of it like some of the sabermetric defensivie stats, like UZR. One year a fielder can be incredible, and the next he can be bad. Likely, said fielder is somewhere in between, but in small doses weird stuff can happen. This was probably the case here, not getting into discussions about the difference in blockers and such.

Subsequently, our offensive production substantially dropped, from nearly 43 points a game in 2007 (2nd in the country) to "only" a little more than 33 points a contest in '08 (28th). Again, it's almost unfair to compare the two seasons there is such a huge difference, but it assuredly had some type of impact.

Here's a nice, cute little table that tells you everything you need to know in a half-second glance:

Yards per kickoff return Points per game
2007 25.2 43
2008 17.5 33

It makes a difference, people. So, while it isn't like we're replacing vintage Dante Hall back there, it would still be nice to get a good 'replacement'. And no, Dezmon Briscoe doesn't count as an option.

The Potential Solutions

Man, this is tough. Obviously, if there was no such thing as an injury risk, it would be an easy decision. Dez Briscoe, go back there, have fun, continue dominating, and have fun in the NFL next year.

Beyond him, though, it's a whole mess of names. Daymond Patterson probably has the punt returner job down, but kickoff returner requires more straight-line speed, as opposed to the joystick qualities of a DP. I mean, he could do it, but he probably isn't your first choice. So, I'm just going off of the Spring Game, really. I kind of cop out listing 'The Field' as the last option, but I don't want to just throw out random ones. So, I didn't. If you wanna throw one out, though...I'm all ears.

The list of names after the break.

Dezmon Briscoe (Jr.)

I'm including him, well, because he could do it the best. Depending on the situation, don't be surprised - at all - if he is returning at least a couple of kicks this fall. I'm sure he'll return them well, too. But, and maybe I'm wrong on this one, but I don't see him consistently lining up back there. It just doesn't make too much sense; while kickoff returns and field position are important things, yes, I'd rather have (arguably) the conference's best wide receiver not getting hurt returning kicks.

How often Mangino uses Dez to return the kicks is the wild card of this whole scenario. He could go multiple ways with this one, anywhere from installing Briscoe as the primary returner and sending him out there nearly every time all of the way to only returning when absolutely necessary. Ideally, you can find a returner equally as good, or at least similarly talented, so that Dez can save up energy for wide receiver.

And yes, I realize that this section has been entirely unhelpful. I'm sorry. I'm not Mangino, and I have no idea just how he is planning on using Briscoe in the kicking game. It's certainly fun to talk about, though.

Darrell Stuckey (Sr.)

Just like Briscoe, I highly doubt that we are seeing Stuckey return kickoffs any time soon. Given the choice, I'd prefer Briscoe to return the kicks, ability and everything else being equal - we have quite a few weapons on offense if worse were to come to worse with Dez, but on defense we are woefully short on proven commodities. And, considering that Dez has proven in real game action that he is capable of excelling at such duties, while Stuckey hasn't returned one before, probably means that Briscoe is the better returner.

So, hopefully we won't see #25 back there. Let's just put it that way. Unless, of course, he's awesome. Then, you still probably won't see him.

Isiah Barfield (rsSoph.)

He received the brunt of the work in the Spring Game, along with Darrell Stuckey, so he has to go on here. Really, given the star quality of the other two  players, he has to be the odds-on favorite. At least to receive the majority of the kickoffs. The non-essential ones. Barfield's once-promising future at cornerback is pretty much done, now, given the fact he's been moved over to wide receiver. If you wanted a quote to sum up the quick descension:

Played in the first four games of the season, but did not play again until the bowl game against Minnesota...

And yes, he started the third and fourth games of the season (@ South Florida and vs. Sam Houston State). He wasn't the hyped recruit that Marcus Herford was coming into college, but like Marcus he may have to form a niche as a kick return specialist to see the field consistently. Barfield's smaller than Herford, which is probably a good thing; the biggest problem with Herford seemed to be a complete inability to move laterally. He either had a seam and ran through it, or simply ran into an oncoming tackler around the 18. There isn't any video of Barfield returning kicks, but he can't be worse than last year.


The Field

I thought about putting names here, but really I'd just be pulling them out of my ass. When fall practice starts in a month-or-so, we can try and figure out who is getting practice reps. Until then, we'll leave the guessing alone. We do know that all three of the above names should at least contend for the job, and we should probably be fairly certain that any combination will do better than last year's dreadful performance.

But, I wouldn't bet against the Field on this one, either. There are a handful of guys who are buried on the depth chart but could probably do a halfway decent job here. So, yeah, don't write anybody off, really.

Except Todd. It's probably fairly certain he isn't running back there. Or anyone who has 'line' or 'backer' after their name. Besides that, though. Anything is possible.

So, The Solution Is...

To Be Decided.

Seriously, I almost didn't do this one because there are so few answers. If the Spring Game is any indication, then it will probably be Isiah Barfield, with Dezmon Briscoe or Darrell Stuckey coming in for the most intense games/situations.

Most likely, Briscoe will end up back there more often than I want him there, necessarily. Or more often than I seem to lead on here. He shouldn't be the guy stepping back there in the 4th quarter against Northern Colorado, but if it's close down in El Paso, he'll be back there. As long as he can handle it, and there is enough finger-crossing on the sidelines, I suppose it'd be the best move. It just freaks me out.