STILLWATER — Justin Blackmon carried a weighted ball during warm-ups at practice Tuesday and will do so for the remainder of the week.
It's the price Oklahoma State receivers pay for fumbling in the Cowboys' previous game.
Blackmon racked up 13 catches for 205 receiving yards and two touchdowns Saturday against Kansas State. But he also had two critical mistakes when he muffed a punt in the first quarter and lost a fumble near the goal line in the third quarter.
“It's something I'm trying to get better at and work on,” Blackmon said.
Ball security has been perhaps the only true knock on Blackmon, who is putting together another season worthy of being named the Biletnikoff winner for the second year in a row. He also fumbled the ball out of the end zone in a tight game against Texas A&M in September.
None of those turnovers ultimately ended up costing the Cowboys, but OSU coach Mike Gundy said the issue was addressed with Blackmon earlier this week. One of Gundy's former coaches even called to tell him to tell Blackmon to “act like there's thousand-dollar bills around that ball.”
“That's one of those things where you talk to him about it, and you let it go,” Gundy said.
“He's pretty hard on himself in a lot of areas. You don't really have to get on him much on a lot of things. He takes things personally.”
Despite the fumbles, there's no question Blackmon will continue to be Brandon Weeden's No. 1 receiving target, but what about punt returns? Will the Cowboys keep putting him back there?
Blackmon asked to get involved in the return game earlier this season and began fielding punts in the Texas game.
After calling for a fair catch five times in a row over the Cowboys' next four games, Blackmon muffed the first punt he tried to return against K-State and the Wildcats recovered at the OSU 23-yard line. After that, he called for a fair catch on the other two punts he fielded in the game.
“Can he do it? Yes, I think he can,” Gundy said of Blackmon's ability to return punts. “Has he performed as well as we thought he would at this point in doing it? No. We thought it would be a much smoother transition.
“I think it's maybe a little more difficult than what people thought, including myself.”
But Gundy said Blackmon will continue to be in the rotation to return punts when normal returner Josh Cooper, who missed the K-State game because of a hamstring injury, needs a break. Freshman Josh Stewart could get some additional opportunities going forward.
Blackmon said he is confident returning punts — he did it in high school—but is still trying to get back in the habit paying attention to all the intricacies of that part of the game. That means watching the trajectory and spin of the ball as it comes off the punter's foot, judging the wind and being aware of the opposing players sprinting toward him as he tries to field the ball.
“You've got distractions at all times,” Blackmon said. “Players are yelling at you, talking to you, trying to get you to drop it. You've got to have a lot of concentration.”
For Weeden, it's all about how Blackmon reacts after the rare mistakes.
After his fumble near the goal line, Blackmon jogged off the field, took off his helmet and sat calmly on the bench. He did not hang his head or yell and scream.
Weeden knew that was his cue to try to find Blackmon the rest of the game, because the receiver would make up for the fumbles. Sure enough, the duo connected on a 54-yard touchdown and crucial two-point conversion to give the Cowboys a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
“He's going to make a statement,” Weeden said. “He did.
“When you respond positively like that, I think that goes a long way as far as demeanor on the sideline. If he's moping around (after the fumble), our sideline might have gone to junk and we might not have won that game because everybody's in the dumps.”
Returning punts has been an adventure for Justin Blackmon over the past four games, as he has called for a fair catch seven times and muffed one punt. Here's a look at OSU's candidates to return punts the rest of the season.
Josh Cooper: When healthy, the sure-handed Cooper will be the Cowboys' primary punt returner. He has 10 punt returns for 41 yards this season, with a long of 15 yards.
Justin Blackmon: OSU coach Mike Gundy said Blackmon will still be in the mix to return punts when Cooper needs a break. After fair-catching five consecutive punts dating back to the Texas game, Blackmon muffed the first punt he attempted to return last week against Kansas State, which was recovered by the Wildcats.
Josh Stewart: Stewart has occasionally gone back to field punts this season, mostly in blowouts after the starters have been taken out of the game. Gundy has been hesitant to put the freshman in that situation earlier in games, but said this week Stewart could be worked into the rotation more the rest of the season.
Justin Gilbert: Gilbert has been masterful at returning kickoffs during his OSU career, making him an intriguing possibility to return punts as well. But Gundy said he does not want to overwork the sophomore, who also starts at cornerback and sometimes plays on the punt coverage team. For now, Gilbert will not return punts.