Weeks before Phillip Brooks officially became Kansas State’s go-to option in the return game, he was confident. At the team’s media day Aug. 9, he said he’ll willingly take on the role.
“I’d love to be that guy just to help my team out,” he said. “So I’d have no problem being that guy.”
Before taking a redshirt, Brooks had a handful of opportunities in the return game last year. He returned three kickoffs for 56 years and had one punt return for six yards. His top performance came against Texas Tech, when he fielded two kickoffs and totaled 44 yards. Both of those areas made him the No. 3 option on last season’s squad behind Isaiah Zuber and Duke Shelley.
Both are gone now.
And on Monday, Brooks showed his belief wasn’t misplaced, as the Wildcats listed him No. 1 on the depth chart at both punt and kick return heading into Saturday’s opener versus Nicholls.
Head coach Chris Klieman said what separated Brooks from the other contenders for the spot was simple: he never leveled off.
“Consistency catching the football is one (reason),” Klieman said. “He’s got a knack back there of just finding open space, whether it’s on punt or kickoff return. He just has a knack for being patient and finding the seams. Once he does hit it, he hits it hard.”
The swagger Brooks carries himself with doesn’t hurt, either.
“That’s what you’re always looking for in a punt returner or a kick returner is somebody who wants the ball in their hands and is confident to say, ‘Just give me a crease,’” Klieman said. “We’ve spent an awful lot of time on the return units this fall camp, and I’m excited to see what Phillip can do.”
Brooks’ experience as a returner isn’t limited to his scant chances last season. During his senior season at Lee’s Summit West High School in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, Brooks combined for 262 yards and a touchdown on punts and kickoffs. He split those duties with Mario Goodrich, who is entering his sophomore season as a defensive back at Clemson.
“We just were both back there,” Brooks said. “Whatever side of the field the ball got kicked to took it.”
The Wildcats hope Brooks establishes the same dynamic with cornerback Walter Neil Jr., who also will have a chance to return kicks.
Neil is eager for Saturday’s opener to arrive.
“There’s two people back there; you have to kick it to one of us,” Neil said. “Me and Phillip, we’re going to watch extra film together, learn keys together, so whichever person they kick it to, the other person, we’re immediately looking to block every time to try to score and get it in the end zone.”
For Neil, being part of the newest installment in the Wildcats’ storied history of return men is humbling.
“Kansas State has a rich tradition of special teams, so the fact that the coaches are like, ‘Hey Walt, Phillip, y’all two are the next in line to carry that on’ is amazing,” he said. “I’ve started watching so much film on kickoff return.”
He doesn’t have to watch film on Brooks; he just gets to appreciate his teammate at every practice. One attribute about Brooks stands above the rest.
“Just speed,” Neil said. “He’s blazing fast, even as a wide receiver. If you let him get in a cushion — if he’s even (with you), he’s leavin’. That’s just Phillip. He’s super fast and super jittery and can explode at any time.”
Brooks said he doesn’t view himself as stronger in one specific return game. Despite their differences, Brooks pointed out both types of return ultimately come down to the same three elements.
Catching the ball. Making a move. And leaving would-be tacklers grasping at air.
He’ll be in the spotlight in both areas come Saturday.
“I’m just trying to play,” he said. “Wherever Coach (Klieman) puts me, I’m just trying to make an impact in the game. I’m going to utilize the speed that I have and just try to make plays. That’s what I expect this year.”