Dead last — that’s where Missouri’s kickoff-return average ranked among 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season.
It wasn’t even particularly close.
The Tigers averaged 15.08 yards on 38 kickoff returns last season, trailing 127th-place Buffalo by 1.52 yards per return. The median kickoff return average in FBS was 21.1 yards, further illustrating how abysmal Mizzou’s performance was last season.
It’s a major reason why first-team Tigers coach Barry Odom chose to put himself in charge of special teams this season.
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“I wanted to take a lot of (special teams) off of our assistant coaches’ plates and, quite honestly, I wanted to really coach,” Odom said. “I knew going into this season that there were so many things that I needed to do as the head coach that I had to pick my moments on where and when I can be effective to give everything the needed time.”
Odom also hired Jonathan Rutledge, who he worked with at Memphis before returning to Mizzou prior to the 2015 season, as the team’s special teams analyst.
The hidden yardage MU sacrificed in the return game last season wasn’t the primary reason for the program’s fall from back-to-back SEC East titles to a 5-7 record, but it was a contributing factor.
“It’s amongst us as players to take it more seriously and be more focused and really hone down on all the small things,” said senior wide receiver Chris Black, who averages 12.3 yards per punt return this season. “The rest of the season, everything is about the small things. That’s what’s going to help us get over the edge and win.”
With the midpoint of the season approaching, is Odom happy with the production from the return game under his watch?
“Kickoff return, absolutely not,” he said Monday during his weekly news conference. “We have not been good. We haven’t been very good at the front line getting our blocks. There’s been one or two opportunities that we had to really crease one and we missed it. … We’ve got to put our offense in a better situation starting the drive.”
This season, Missouri ranks 101st in the FBS, averaging 18.5 yards per kickoff return.
“It would be nice to be on the emblem in the middle of the field rather than the 20-yard line once in a while,” sophomore quarterback Drew Lock said, “but it’s not something I’m going to keep over the return team’s head.”
That doesn’t mean Missouri’s special-teams players aren’t keenly aware how much help they could provide an offense that’s still finding its way.
“A lot more,” Black said. “Field position is everything, and we’re working on that. We’ll continue to get better at that.”
A healthy Alex Ross, who averages a team-high 22.5 yards on two kickoff returns this season, could spark the kickoff-return unit and he should be available at No. 18 Florida, where MU plays at 3 p.m. Saturday in Gainesville, Fla.
Redshirt freshman Johnathon Johnson averages only 18.0 yards and freshman Damarea Crockett has averaged 17.8 yards per kickoff return this season.
Meanwhile, Missouri’s punt returners — including Johnson, who has a 54-yard punt return touchdown — rank 23rd in the country at 13.0 yards per return.
It’s a positive trend after finishing 100th in FBS last season at 5.85 yards, but there’s more than group can do, too.
“Our punt-return team, although we’ve muffed a couple punts, other than that has been pretty solid,” Odom said.
He wants the Tigers to clean up its punt catching, making sure there are no turnovers and that no punts drop and roll an extra 15 or 20 yards to put the offense in an unnecessary hole.
“That’s some of that hidden yardage we talk about all the time on trying to get it in our favor,” Odom said.