MANHATTAN — Kansas State’s top two return specialists stood on opposite ends of the North end zone at Snyder Family Stadium and cracked jokes as they awaited the opening kickoff from Central Arkansas on Saturday.
On the left was junior receiver Byron Pringle. On the right was junior defensive back D.J. Reed. One pointed at the other and yelled that he was about to score the Wildcats’ first touchdown of the season. The other shook his head and pointed right back.
“It is very funny, because me and Byron will be back there like, man, who are they going to kick it to?” Reed said following K-State’s 55-19 victory. “It’s cool knowing you have somebody who is dynamic back there with you. If they kick it to him, he is going to make something happen. If they kick it to me, I am going to make something happen.”
That’s how confident K-State’s return men are this season. They work so well together that they expect to score every time an opposing team punts or kicks the ball in their direction.
Anyone who watched them run circles around Central Arkansas, combining for 214 yards and a touchdown on five returns, could see why. The Bears had no answers for them.
That had to be frustrating, considering Central Arkansas did their homework on K-State special teams. Leading up to opening kickoff, its coaches decided to kick away from Pringle, a junior receiver who stood out as an ace returner by totaling 721 yards and a touchdown last year.
That move quickly turned bad.
Reed, a junior defensive back, took the kickoff and weaved his way up the right sideline for 96 yards, coming oh so close to the touchdown Pringle predicted in pregame, until he was ultimately chased down and tackled from behind.
K-State running back Alex Barnes scored on a short run two plays later, and the Wildcats were on their way to a convincing victory that featured several more highlight returns.
The next time Central Arkansas tried a kickoff, it changed strategy and sent a high, short kick at Pringle. The move yielded better results, but Pringle still brought the ball out to the 38.
“We have a great partnership,” Pringle said. “We even go out and eat lunch together throughout the week. We always talk about what we are going to do. We don’t care about which way they kick it. He can get it four times in a row and I am going to be there to block. If I get it four times in a row he is going to block for me.”
They alternated in the first game of the season, celebrating the whole way through.
“You have got to have somebody back there who can make plays and Byron knows how to make plays,” Reed said. “I know how to make plays. When the ball is in our hands, it naturally just happens and unfolds. It’s incomprehensible and unexplainable. It just happens.”
The top return moment of the night came from Reed on a Central Arkansas punt in the second quarter.
If Reed thought he was going to miss out on a touchdown when Central Arkansas defenders caught him from behind as he approached the end zone on the opening kickoff of the season, well, he was wrong.
With Pringle and Reed both back to return, the Bears chose to punt the ball to Reed and hope for the best. But Reed caught the ball, followed his blockers up the left sideline and took off for a 62-yard touchdown.
“When the ball was punted, I told him, ‘You good. You good,’ “ Pringle said. “I knew he was going to be able to return it as soon as he got the ball and got started. He wasn’t going to slow down.”
Reed may have had the biggest impact in the first game of the season, but it was his presence alongside Pringle that made K-State’s return game to ooze potential.
By playing together on every return, they force punters and kickers to make difficult choices. Do they test Pringle? Do they test Reed? Or do they simply knock the ball of out bounds?
“Both of them are very good,” K-State football coach Bill Snyder said. “They both do a good job. That is an advantage.”
An advantage the Wildcats hope to continue using in their next 11 games.
“It’s huge for us, especially on offense,” running back Alex Barnes said. “We know we are getting good field position each and every time that we go out there, knowing we have two explosive athletes who can take it to the house every time is really refreshing. It energizes everybody.”