Sixteen measly yards is all Missouri has averaged on kickoff returns through four games.
The Tigers rank 120th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams and haven’t had a return longer than 21 yards on any kickoff this season.
Seven teams, including Kansas State, average more than twice as many yards per kickoff return as Missouri.
With the offense’s persistent issues and the cracks that appeared for Missouri’s defense against Kentucky, it’s easy to gloss over the special-teams struggles.
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But make no mistake, an ineffective return game and the resultant poor field position are a troublesome issue for the Tigers.
“Kickoff returns are momentum plays …” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “The kickoff-return team has to reestablish the momentum and field position.”
It hasn’t happened in 2015 for the Tigers, but improved field position is among the easiest ways to aid the offense.
“It can make a big difference …” said sophomore Anthony Sherrils, who has averaged 17.8 yards as MU’s primary kick returner this season. “If kickoff return breaks out for a 30-yard gain, now the offense is coming on the field like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to score. We’re going to put it in the end zone.’ … The percentages (of scoring) go way up when you start on the 25 or 30.”
What needs to change?
“We have to do a better job of executing, blocking and hitting the seams …” Sherrils said. “Some of the younger guys have to do a better job of knowing their role and really executing it. The coaches asked for people to come on the field and just execute a couple snaps a game, so we just have to do that as a unit.”
Missouri’s return-game woes also extend to punts.
Senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers blocked a quick kick by Southeast Missouri quarterback Tay Bender in the opening game, which crossed the line of scrimmage and was returned 41 yards by junior Aarion Penton for a touchdown.
Technically, it was a punt-return touchdown, but realistically Missouri’s defense was on the field.
Take away that return, the Tigers have averaged 4.5 yards on 11 returns, which would rank 102nd in the nation.
“It’s a total package,” said cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford, who heads up the punt-return unit. “Guys up front have got to do a good job of giving him time to make runs. But the first part of equation is, you’ve got to catch the football. If you’re not catching the football, that just eliminates the play and any chance of a big play.”
Missouri has only returned 12 of 32 punts by opponents this season with Penton letting far too many bounce.
“It’s been a tough job ... but I’m just working to keep getting better each week and getting better at my decision-making,” said Penton, who will now split punt-return duties with freshman Cam Hilton.
The Tigers also are making changes in the kick-return game.
Sherrils no longer appears on the depth chart as a kick returner.
Pinkel indicated Monday that an ankle injury factored into the decision, but Sherrils insisted his ankle is fine. He also expressed no unrest about the decision.
“It doesn’t upset me,” Sherrils said. “My efforts are needed on defense, so I’m going to help this team wherever I need to help this team at.”
Junior John Gibson will handle the duty and redshirt freshmen Finis Stribling IV and Ray Wingo will serve as backups.
“Busting big ones is never easy,” Ford said. “Even (former All-American) Marcus (Murphy), when he first got here, people don’t remember that he had some success, but he also had some struggles. … But we know that anytime you can make plays in the kicking game, it helps your offense and it helps your defense. That’s an area that’s of concern for us and one we feel like we’ve got to get more production out of.”