COLUMBIA — By the time Marcus Murphy looked down field, a Florida defender stood four yards ahead of him running at full speed. Another streaked in 10 yards upfield from the right and another 11 yards ahead acted as Florida’s safety net.
Murphy, Missouri’s 2014 All-American return man, already brought back the game’s opening kickoff for a touchdown. The Gators, at this point trailing 20-0, sure wouldn’t let him do it again.
The first man ran left as Murphy broke right, directly into a swarm of Gators who collectively whiffed on a singular tackle. Nine defenders ended up behind the ball carrier as Murphy went up the field. The return went 82 yards. Murphy didn’t need a single block.
“When you got a guy like Murph back there, that’s magic on the field right there,” said Cornell Ford, Missouri’s cornerbacks coach who also instructs punt returners. “That’s a guy that can go from zero to 100 in the blink of an eye and make anybody miss.”
Missouri isn’t looking for magic from its kick returners this season. That would be too high an expectation, coaches said, for perhaps the hardest job on the football field.
But it’s also something the No. 24 Tigers had consistently for the past four years. Murphy, an All-American returner turned NFL draft choice, made sure of it with three special teams scores his senior season.
Now, Missouri will settle for consistency in the punt return game: 10 yards per return, no fumbles, decisive fair catches. Not as much magic. More bread and butter.
“The No. 1 thing is they’ve gotta be able to catch the football,” Ford said.
That wasn’t a problem for Murphy, who coaches said graduated beyond the no-drops mantra into make-a-move territory. That won’t be the case as the Tigers try to replace him in 2015.
“We gotta find that next player,” Ford said. “We don’t have those All-Americans yet.”
What the Tigers do have are junior cornerbacks Aarion Penton and John Gibson, the two tasked with fielding kicks in 2015.
Gibson played in every game during the 2014 season, and Penton only missed one. Between them, they share five interceptions over the past two seasons.
“You want guys that are good around the ball,” said defensive coordinator Barry Odom. “That’s something you can teach a little bit, and I think that’s something that’s also within the individual.
“They’re playmakers. When the ball is in the area, they either come up with it or make a play on the ball, and that’s an advantage. You look for guys that have that factor to them.”
Players who can take off downfield after catching a kick can flip field position and make up yards to take pressure off the Missouri’s offense, something Murphy did with ease during his Tiger tenure. A score is just a plus.
“That’s been set for four years,” said head coach Gary Pinkel. “You’ve got one of the best in the nation doing it all the time, so those are big shoes to fill, and there’s a lot of yards there.”
Now those yards belong to Penton and Gibson, both of whom, teammates said, have sure hands and are hard to bring down in the open field. Coaches have been aware of that skillset for years, they said. Freshman skill players take part in kick return drills as soon as they arrive to gauge their special teams potential.
“If you’ve never done it before, it can be a little nerve-wracking because you have to maintain your focus on the ball and then also be cognizant of the people coming down at you,” said senior safety Ian Simon, who is also returning kicks in practice.
Those drills are much more geared toward receiving kicks securely and starting a quick burst downfield rather than shimmying past defenders hurtling toward returners with 40 yards of momentum behind them.
“There are a lot of guys that like (punt returning) until they get whacked a few times,” Pinkel said.
That stems from possibly being able to break into the open field, similar to what Murphy did twice against Florida. But that’s not what Missouri is looking for this year. Instead, it’d trade less excitement for a sure pair of hands.
Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.