When Missouri released its first 2014 depth chart of the regular season Monday, Marcus Murphy’s name wasn’t atop the list at the kickoff returner.
Murphy’s offensive workload is expected to increase this season, so the Tigers’ staff wanted to find a way to reduce tread wear on one it’s top playmakers.
“We’re just trying to be smart about what we do with him, so (Murphy) will return punts,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “That’s just something, week to week, we’re going to do. He’s looked so good out there at running back and at receiver.”
The decision didn’t sit well with Murphy. He’s a team player, and willing to do what the coaches ask, but he’s also a competitor.
Murphy wasn’t ready to give up kickoff return duties without a fight.
“I’m actually still fighting for it,” Murphy said Monday during the Tigers’ weekly media session. “Coach told me that I’ll be a heavy-load guy on offense, so he wanted to take a little bit of the load off me. He said it will be a week-to-week decision, but kick returns are special to me. I’m going to fight for them as long as I can.”
Good thing he did.
Junior Ian Simon, who is listed as the No. 1 kick returner, was on the field for South Dakota State’s first two kickoffs during Missouri’s 38-18 victory. The first kickoff bumbled out of bounds at the MU 1 for a penalty and the second resulted in a touchback.
By the time the Jackrabbits pulled within 21-10 on a field goal late in the second quarter, Murphy was deep to return the kickoff — and responded with a 29-yard gallop.
After South Dakota State pulled within 21-18 early in the third quarter, Murphy wasn’t sure if he’d get the call or Simon would be sent deep.
“When he called my name, I was happy and I was excited,” said Murphy, who promptly delivered a back-breaking 102-yard kickoff return touchdown.
“We needed the lift,” Pinkel said after the win.
As a sophomore in 2012, Murphy was a first-team All-SEC and second-team All-American return specialist. He took three punt returns and a kickoff return to the house that season among 46 opportunities.
Last year, Murphy never returned any of the 48 punts and kickoffs he handled more than 42 yards, but all that changed in 16 seconds of game action during Saturday’s third quarter.
Here are a few two more things of note from Missouri’s season-opening win:
Missouri was plus-three in the turnover department, which is always a huge benefit.
Senior safety Duron Singleton’s first-quarter interception extended the Tigers’ nation-leading streak of consecutive games with a turnover to 45.
Midway through the third quarter, sophomore cornerback Aarion Penton’s interception in the end zone stymied South Dakota State’s upset bid.
Finally, junior free safety Ian Simon’s forced fumble — which was recovered by senior strong safety Braylon Webb not backup quarterback Eddie Printz, no matter what the official stats said Saturday night — kept a fourth-quarter comeback bid from ever brewing.
Offense requires patience
It’s easy to forget that last season, the Missouri offense stumbled through non-conference play. The Tigers weren’t able to put away Murray State quickly, struggled with Toledo and didn’t exactly hammer Arkansas State either.
So, while Missouri looked disjointed at times and only racked up 393 yards of total offense against South Dakota State, the sky isn’t necessarily falling. Aside from quarterback Maty Mauk’s mindless 7-yard loss on a backwards heave out of bounds as he tried to avoid a sack late in the second quarter, the offense protected the football well.
Mauk became only the third quarterback in Tigers history with three passing touchdowns of at least 29 yards in the game, which is a positive sign for an offense that will need to generate big plays. Not only does it often equate to points, but it forces teams to respect the run game and gives Hansbrough space to work with — and he did some pretty good work in space Saturday, running for a career-best 126 yards on 20 carries.
“I felt pretty good starting off, but we didn’t score in the second quarter and that’s a bad thing,” Mauk said. “That’s the stuff we’ve got to fix. It’s me and the guys out there catching the ball, we’ve got to get on the same page.”
That will take time in games together. Remember, Mauk and his receivers are all full-time starters for the first time this season. There’s a learning curve to negotiate — even in games.
“We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas and keep going, keep scoring and try to score every drive,” senior wide receiver Darius White said.