AUSTIN, Texas — One of the primary things Texas coach Steve Sarkisian wants in a punt returner is courage.
Xavier Worthy admits he was not always brave enough to handle the job. He has no fear anymore.
Worthy, already one of the most dynamic wide receivers in the country, has turned into arguably the Big 12's most explosive punt returner heading into the home stretch of the season. He leads the league in total punt return yardage and scored his first career touchdown return last week against BYU.
That makes him just another new headache for No. 25 Kansas State (6-2, 4-1) when the Wildcats face the No. 7 Longhorns (7-1, 4-1, No 7 CFP) in a key Big 12 showdown on Saturday. Five teams are tied for first in the league and the winner emerges with an inside track to conference championship game.
“Basically you've just got to be fearless back there. I ain't gonna lie, it's a scary job,” Worthy said of fielding punts amid the oncoming rush of tacklers.
Worthy said he was “too scared” to do it in high school in Fresno, California. He wasn't given a choice in college.
“Coach just told me ‘you’re on punt return,'” Worthy said.
Texas saw in him the speed, shifty moves and excellent hands to excel as a kick returner. He has been the Longhorns' primary punt returner for two seasons, but never broke free to the end zone until last week.
“You have to be able to catch the ball. I know that sounds simple, but a lot of times in high school they just don't get the punt like punters in college and pro ... They are end over end or rolling on the ground,” Sarkisian said. “You have to be able to (catch) it when people are running at you.”
A good returner also needs “natural instincts and feel,” Sarkisian said.
Worthy's 25 career touchdown receptions already rank third in school history. The junior's big-play ability in the return game is now a new threat for Kansas State coach Chris Klieman, who said the Longhorns are already the best Texas team he's faced in five years.
Worthy's touchdown against BYU was the first Texas punt return for a score since 2018 — against Kansas State.
“I don’t see any weakness on either side of the ball," Klieman said, "or special teams.”
TOUGH DEFENSES, FEW TOUCHDOWNS
With all the firepower in the two offenses, there is a chance the Longhorns and Wildcats stage a defensive struggle. Kansas State has allowed no touchdowns over the last nine quarters and won its last two games by a combined scored of 82-6. Texas has two games when it allowed only one touchdown and two more when it allowed none.
“We’re playing at an elite level, which is what we’ve been trying to achieve the whole year,” Wildcats defensive end Nate Matlack said. “It feels good to be playing at this level, shutting guys out or holding them to one score. That’s the goal.”
Texas sometimes struggles to score touchdowns near the goal line. Texas twice got stuffed in short yardage on fourth down against BYU, the same problem that flared in a tight loss to Oklahoma. The Longhorns were just 2 of 5 converting “red zone” drives into touchdowns against BYU.
Texas will again start Maalik Murphy for Quinn Ewers (shoulder sprain) at quarterback. Murphy was solid if unspectacular in his first career start against BYU with 16-of-25 passing for 170 yards and two touchdowns. He also had two first half turnovers. Freshman Arch Manning remains the top backup.
Kansas State has been using a rotation of veteran Will Howard and freshman Avery Johnson at quarterback. Howard is the veteran in coordinator Collin Klein's offense and would be a steady hand amid a hostile crowd with the lead in the Big 12 at stake. Howard brings a burst of speed the Longhorns rarely see at quarterback. He ran for five touchdowns against Texas Tech earlier this season.