The frustration was acceptable, but the reaction was not.
Early in the fourth quarter of a 34-31 win at Arizona State on Sept. 21, Colorado receiver KD Nixon was tackled after a 17-yard catch and held down by a Sun Devils defender.
When Nixon got up, he shoved the ASU defender and drew a 15-yard penalty. It was the first play of a crucial drive in a tie game, but the penalty contributed to the Buffs being pushed back and punting.
“As the player I am, I can’t do that,” Nixon said this week. “I told myself, ‘Relax; that’s not you, KD.’”
It was the reaction of his head coach, however, that kept Nixon calm. Mel Tucker didn’t scream at the junior for the mistake or pull him from the game. Instead, he calmly told him to do better next time.
“Just seeing him really talk to me after that and still be my coach, that really made my day,” Nixon said. “That’s what helped me finish the game.”
Late in the game, Nixon had a 13-yard catch that resulted in a first down and helped set up the game-winning field goal.
For Nixon, the win against ASU was a mixed bag. He put his explosiveness on display, with 196 total yards (98 receiving, 98 on kickoff returns), but he also had two costly mistakes. In addition to the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, Nixon fumbled a kickoff return after ASU’s first touchdown. The Sun Devils took advantage with another quick touchdown to tie the game at 14-14.
“That’s probably something I did during the week that just came back on me,” he said. “It’s just an eye opener. Like with the unsportsmanlike conduct, that’s just me not being me and I let my team down.”
Nixon often helps the Buffs (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12), as one of their most dynamic players. He leads the team with 449 all-purpose yards this season, including 17 catches for 295 yards and one touchdown and five kickoff returns for 147 yards (29.4 per return).
As a receiver, Nixon is part of a talented crew that includes Laviska Shenault, Tony Brown and Dimitri Stanley. All four have had big moments this season.
“We know that nobody has seen our best yet,” Nixon said. “You got a little peek and it’s just phenomenal because now everybody is all finally catching on that we have more than more than one receiver. And that’s the crazy part. We’ve been doing this. Now the world is finding out, so we got way more to do but I think you’re all really about to start seeing us progress way more.”
As a kick returner, Nixon has had a frustrating season.
“Honestly I’m not having too much fun (as a returner) because they’re scared to kick me the ball,” he said.
CU opponents have had 23 kickoffs, with 16 going for touchbacks and only six being returned (one by Shenault). Three of Nixon’s five returns came last week against Arizona State. He had a 38-yard return and was on his way to a nice return before his fumble.
“I know what to do (to fix it),” he said. “I know to take practice serious, I know to tuck the ball more, keep it squeezed in tight. Being aware of my mistakes and being able to be told, take criticism and then come back to practice and fix it, that’s all that matters, man.”
Nixon’s frustration as a returner led him to taking a chance he normally shouldn’t, bringing a ball out from the end zone against Air Force. Rather than CU starting at its 25-yard line, Nixon was tackled at the 17.
“I made two weeks of mistakes, but at the same time, my coaches still trust me,” he said. “So that’s when you got to go back to the film room, you learn from it. I’m happy I was able to see it. I’m happy I’m able to correct it.”
CU coaches did, however, take advantage of the bye week to open up the competition.
“Even if a guy hasn’t played yet, we’ve been coaching these guys the whole time and they may be ready to play moving forward,” Tucker said. “So we’re actually auditioning a couple of spots, especially on special teams, looking for guys that can get the job done in a more consistent basis because we have to win on (special) teams.”
Nixon could still be that guy because Tucker likes the ability the junior brings to the table. Three of his five kickoff returns have gone for 29 yards or more. Smart decisions and ball security will be crucial for Nixon, however.
“He’s going to get some opportunities and when he gets some we just have to make the most of them,” Tucker said. “KD is a very explosive player. He does a lot for us on offense, and then he’s unselfish with whatever we need him to do on special teams. He’s a definite guy that can win for us.”
Ultimately, that is Nixon’s goal. He wants to make plays, but he wants the Buffs to win games. So far, the Buffs are doing that, but Nixon knows he and his teammates have to be even better to keep winning.
“My thoughts are very positive (about the 3-1 start), but also not satisfied,” he said. “So you know, we keep going, keep striving for the best and keep working.”