Marcus Murphy was a Scout.com All-American return specialist for Missouri, a playmaking security blanket for coach Gary Pinkel’s staff in the punt- and kickoff-return games.
Murphy has taken his talents to New Orleans, creating a massive void in the Tigers’ never-ending quest for the best possible field-position.
The search for his replacement continues as Missouri grinds through the penultimate week before the Sept. 5 season opener against Southeast Missouri.
“The No. 1 thing is they’ve got to be able to catch the football,” said MU cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford, who also is in charge of punt returners. “You have to be able to make great decisions back there. When guys are flying at you, that’s real tough, being able to focus on the football and not focus on what’s coming down the chute at you.”
Of course, having the willingness and guts (or stupidity) to return punts is only a piece of the equation.
“After you can catch the football consistently and make good decisions, now you’ve got to be able to do something with the football in your hands,” Ford said. “Those are the kind of game-breakers and playmakers that you’re looking for at that position. He’s got to be a special guy to be in that position.”
Junior cornerback Aarion Penton and sophomore safety Thomas Wilson are the top two players in line to inherit Murphy’s punt-return duties, while junior cornerback John Gibson and sophomore safety Anthony Sherrils, a Hogan Prep graduate, are currently atop the depth chart at kickoff returner.
“We don’t have any All-Americans yet here,” Ford said. “Those are the guys, they do it on game day and prove themselves on game day. … Right now, we’ve got guys who’ve never really been in the battle. We’ve got guys we think we know, but we don’t really know until we get into a game.”
Make no mistake, the return spots are critical to fill — not only because a good return specialist can put a team on his back and deliver a victory, but also because a bad one can tank a team’s chances.
“If he’s back there, I have to trust him,” Ford said. “We have to trust him as a football team, because back there, if you make one mistake, if can cost you a ballgame.”
▪ Missouri had four players among the preseason All-SEC coaches’ selections, including a pair of second-team picks.
The SEC office announced the team Tuesday, which was voted on by the conference’s coaches (who were not allowed to vote for their own players).
Quarterback Maty Mauk, a junior who helped the Tigers to 11 wins and threw for 2,648 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, was joined by senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers, who finished second in the SEC with 122 tackles and is the conference’s top returning tackler.
Senior center Evan Boehm, who has started all 40 games of his MU career, including 12 at left guard as a true freshman and 28 straight at center the last two seasons, and senior running back Russell Hansbrough, who rushed for 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, were third-team selections.
Alabama and LSU led all teams with 10 selections each.
▪ There was mostly good news on the injury front for Missouri, which enjoyed two days off as the fall semester got underway.
Senior kicker Andrew Baggett (back spasms) and junior kicker Nick Coffman (groin strain) returned from injury and participated in Tuesday’s practice.
Three wide receivers — senior Wesley Leftwich (right knee sprain), junior Eric Laurent (viral infection) and sophomore J’Mon Moore (left shoulder sprain) — also returned in a limited capacity.
The only new addition to the injury report was sophomore tight end Jason Reese (right knee sprain) is day-to-day after getting nicked up Saturday during practice.
Senior running back Tyler Hunt (groin strain) also was limited again.
Sophomore cornerback Anthony Hines (right foot injury) has yet to practice with the Tigers since joining the team last week from the College of San Mateo (Calif.), but it no longer wore a walking boot.
Freshman wide receiver Johnathon Johnson (ankle sprain) and redshirt freshman running back Trevon Walters (torn right ACL) also remains indefinitely sidelined.
Junior defensive tackle Harold Brantley and redshirt freshman linebacker Roderick Winters (right Lisfranc injury) will miss the 2015 season.