Chris Klieman didn’t hesitate or miss a beat. Nearly the second the questioner finished, Klieman jumped in with an answer — an emphatic one, at that.
Despite Phillip Brooks’ struggles returning punts Saturday, he will remain Kansas State’s primary option in that area.
“Phillip will continue to return punts for us,” Klieman said after a 52-0 shutout of Bowling Green. “He’s an exceptional player.”
On two occasions during the postgame press conference, Klieman referenced Brooks’ return on the opening kickoff. With his back foot planted on K-State’s goal line, Brooks caught the ball and sprinted upfield. He cut to his right, found a seam and continued on his way. He made another Bowling Green defender miss before he finally was knocked out of bounds at the Wildcats’ 44-yard line.
A little more than three minutes (of game time) later, K-State held a 3-0 lead courtesy of kicker Blake Lynch.
“He had the big kick return to start the game,” Klieman said, “which was a huge play.”
That was the highlight of Brooks’ day. It was juxtaposed against two lowlights: he bobbled two punts he attempted to catch. In the third quarter, he lost control of the ball, allowing Falcon wide receiver RB Marlow III to jump on it at K-State’s 22-yard line. It could have been costly to the Wildcats’ attempt to prevent the visitors from scoring a single point — but it didn’t.
On the next play, K-State linebacker Daniel Green sacked Bowling Green quarterback Darius Wade, forcing another fumble in the process. True freshman linebacker Khalid Duke scooped it up to thwart the Falcons’ best shot at avoiding a shutout.
Since Saturday ended, Brooks said he’s put in extra time at securing the ball. The solution, he said, isn’t complicated.
“Just catch more punts,” Brooks said Tuesday. “I did that a lot (Monday): just catching punts. I went early, caught punts, stayed after, caught punts, just to make sure that mistake doesn’t happen again.”
Brooks couldn’t quite put a finger on what issues plagued him Saturday; he speculated it likely stemmed from not seeing the ball into his hands, too focused on trying to make an immediate move to dodge an oncoming tackler.
He didn’t have any interest in reflecting upon his miscues, anyway.
“You can’t control what already happened. It’s in the past,” he said. “We still have to play. If I let that stay with me, then I’ll most likely make another mistake and bobble another punt. So I just let it go and go back out there and play.”
Having Klieman’s unequivocal support doesn’t hurt matters. Brooks said he hadn’t heard Klieman’s comments after the game, the ones reiterating how the redshirt freshman still was the Wildcats’ go-to guy in the return game. The fact he wasn’t aware of the vote of confidence didn’t matter.
“I talked to (Klieman) after the game,” Brooks said. “He wasn’t really big on what happened. Neither was I. What happened happened. I’m just ready to play this Saturday.”
Klieman’s faith in him, Brooks said, adds “an extra edge” to his game.
“He likes us just to go out there and play,” Brooks said. “We’re all athletes — we’re great athletes. ... We know that we can play.”
A couple mistakes hasn’t affected Brooks’ self-esteem.
“I believe I’m a playmaker,” he said, “so I think that’s why Coach (Klieman) has me back there catching and returning kicks.”
It’s an assessment Klieman wouldn’t dispute.
“Phillip’s a great young man, a confident kid,” Klieman said. “We’ll get him back on track.”