By Rob Gray
AMES — The mere mention of Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro caused Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads to interject.
“He’s a big dude,” Rhoads said Monday of the No. 20 Red Raiders’ go-to pass catcher before a reporter’s question could be finished.
That word — big — aptly describes the 6-5, 260-pound Amaro’s role in Tech’s high-powered offense in myriad ways.
And it may be an understatement, which makes the league’s most prolific receiver (9 per game) a key element of the Cyclones’ defensive game plan entering Saturday’s 11 a.m. Fox Sports 1-televised Big 12 game at Lubbock.
“(He’s) important enough that the announcers recognized (during the Red Raiders’ drubbing of Kansas last Saturday) that he wasn’t getting the ball and he let the people on the sideline know,” said Rhoads, whose young team (1-3, 0-1) seeks its second straight road win at Tech (5-0, 2-0). “The next thing you knew they were throwing it to him about every snap and he was catching it and moving the team down the field. That’s a guy that obviously wants the ball and wants to create and that’s what he’s doing for them.”
Amaro, a junior, entered the season with 32 career catches for 466 yards.
Through four and a half games in 2013 (he was suspended the first half of the season opener because of an ejection in last season’s bowl game), Amaro’s caught 38 passes for 463 yards.
And four of his nine grabs Saturday turned third downs into first downs, while helping spark a stunning 54-0 stretch that erased an equally stunning 10-0 Jayhawks’ lead.
“He’s obviously a specimen to look at,” ISU senior safety Jacques Washington said. “He’s a physical guy; he’s one of the guys that loves to block. He’ll drive you down to the ground.”
There’s a fine line between spotlighting the multi-talented Amaro too much or too little.
It’s Cyclone defensive coordinator Wally Burnham’s job to find that narrow sweet spot.
“You’ve got to keep somebody on him — maybe sometimes two people on him,” said Burnham, whose defense ranks seventh in the Big 12 in average yards allowed (393). “There will be times we’re going to get after him a little bit and there will be other times he’s going to make some catches because of what we’re doing — and we can’t do some things with him. So, it’s that old, you know, ‘I’m going to take one, you’ll get one.’”
So the plan’s to control, not eliminate.
That amounts to toeing a tightrope — against Amaro and one of two Big 12 offenses churning up 500 or more yards per game.
A big, but delicate balancing act that’s yet to be achieved this season.
“He’s a big man that catches the ball really well,” Rhoads added Tuesday. “And they do some things schematically-wise that are going to create openings in their empty sets and spreading the field from sideline to sideline. They create a lot of space and get the ball out so dang quick, you find it very hard to get to their quarterback.”
PADDED UP: ISU guard Jamison Lalk (MCL strain) returned to full practice as planned Tuesday, Rhoads said. “Did everything,” Rhoads added. “Was with the twos, played guard … didn’t have to sit out anything. Very encouraging to see.”
WHO’S TECH’S QB?: Walk-on phenom Baker Mayfield didn’t suffer a season-ending knee injury in the Kansas win, Red Raiders coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters Monday, but will he be available against the Cyclones? That’s uncertain, but Burnham’s preparing his team as if he’ll be out there. “We’re getting ready for him,” ISU’s defensive coordinator said. “They’re not going to change their offense.”
FUN TO (ALMOST) THE LAST SNAP: As ISU quarterback Sam Richardson fielded reporters’ questions Tuesday night, he glanced up at a TV screen and smiled. Cyclones.TV was showing a replay of Thursday’s questionable 31-30 loss to Texas. “It’s fun watching it,” said Richardson, who has battled an ankle injury most of the season. Fun? Really? “It’s fun,” he reiterated, “until the end.”
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