Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri cornerback Aarion Penton wanted to get a touchdown Saturday in his new role of punt returner. Little did he know, he wouldn’t have to move from his old position to do it.
As the third quarter of Saturday’s game wound down, Southeast Missouri State quarterback Tay Bender tried to sneak off a pooch punt, only to have linebacker Kentrell Brothers’ hand get in the way. The ball ricocheted sideways, right into Penton’s line of sight, and the starting cornerback grabbed it midair and returned the punt 41 yards for a touchdown.
The score gave Missouri a 27-3 cushion against the Redhawks.
“It was just a big momentum play,” coach Gary Pinkel said.
It was the first touchdown of Penton’s collegiate career.
“Since I started college ball, I’ve wanted to get in the end zone,” he said. “I was an athlete in high school, and decided to play defense here at the Zou. It just feels great to be back in the end zone.”
Penton played receiver for C.B.C., pulling in 59 catches for 896 yards his senior season. That experience, along with his practice fielding punts, paid off as he was corralling the tipped ball.
“I just saw it and knew I had to get under it and make a play.” Penton said.
Penton’s three conventional punt returns Saturday went for 25 total yards, an average of 8.3 yards.
“I think he’s got a little ways to go,” Pinkel said. “… But he’s just got to get out there and do it. Instinctively, he’s got to do it, and I think he’s very talented.”
Penton said getting some reps in has already helped.
“We looked over the punt-returning film and everybody should know their assignments now,” he said. “I feel comfortable now that they know, after the first game, and I know that I have a little bit more time. I feel if I just keep working on the fundamentals and just looking through then big things will come.”
Penton is filling some big shoes. Departed returner Marcus Murphy set the school record with seven career return touchdowns at Missouri and was named first-team All-American last season.
“He just really made one move or a couple moves and just got upfield, and I always go back to the Florida play,” Penton said, referring to Murphy’s 82-yard punt return last year in Gainesville, Fla. “He pretty much made the whole special teams miss on one move and just got upfield. I try to get as much yards as possible and just set up good field position for the offense.”
Pinkel said Penton’s performance Saturday reminded him of the less-remembered early days of Murphy’s career at Missouri.
“Everybody forgets Murph — you didn’t even think about it for four years, but he went out the first few times and balls were dropping down, he’s got to get under them and call fair catch, and we lost some field position there,” Pinkel said.
Things worked out OK for Murphy, who now plays for the New Orleans Saints.
“It really makes me more hungry” to see that, Penton said. “Because I was just with him last season and watching everything he did, so I wish the best of luck to him.”