Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The Missouri football team certainly wouldn’t mind if the black-and-gold uniform worn by Marcus Murphy this season was that of the Tigers and not the New Orleans Saints.
Sure, the Tigers could have used another year of Murphy at backup tailback, what with starter Russell Hansbrough’s lingering ankle injury and the Tigers’ inability to move the football on the ground. But more than anything, Missouri could use the all-Southeastern Conference first-teamer in the return game.
The Tigers have averaged just 16 yards on kickoff returns, 120th of 127 Football Bowl Subdivision schools. Their average of 7.8 per punt return — boosted by a 41-yard return on a blocked punt in Week 1 — is 75th in the nation.
Missouri switched things up this week, listing junior cornerback John Gibson as the kick returner with redshirt freshmen Finis Stribling and Ray Wingo behind him. Aarion Penton remains the first-string punt returner, but freshman receiver Cam Hilton is now his backup.
Missouri’s return-game struggles have been especially harmful in a year when the Tigers have had a hard time moving the ball on offense.
“There’s no question about it,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “The kickoff return is a momentum play. Generally, (the other team) just scored, and they’re kicking off and the kick return team has to reestablish momentum and field position. There’s no question about that. And the same thing on punt returns.”
Gibson replaces Anthony Sherrils, who had been the team’s kick returner in its first four games this season. Sherrils averaged 17.75 yards on eight punt returns, and Pinkel said an ankle injury was partly to blame for him being taken off kick-return duty. Sherrils is still the team’s starting strong safety.
Penton is averaging 9.11 yards per punt return, 5.13 yards per return excluding the 41-yard touchdown he scored on a blocked punt when he was positioned at cornerback.
Pinkel said some other players could see reps at punt returner, and Penton said he was fine with that.
“Whatever helps the team,” he said. “I just want to see us be successful and keep playing our hearts out.”
Penton said decision-making has been one of the bigger challenges thus far.
“They kind of just want me to catch the ball,” Penton said. “Whether it’s a fair catch or not, they just want me to catch the ball, so that’s pretty much what I’m focusing on now.”
Hilton’s move to backup punt returner was only his second-biggest switch of the week. The true freshman moved from third-string strong safety to third-string H receiver.
“He was a great receiver in high school, had great hands and everything else, so we just talked about it as a staff last week, and decided we would first ask him if he wanted to do it,” Pinkel said.
Hilton did, and will play receiver the rest of the season. He will have the option to move back to defense after the season, Pinkel said.
“He’s going to be a great safety,” Pinkel said. “There’s no question about it.”
Hilton is the second defensive back Missouri has converted to a receiver in the last two years, after Wingo. Hilton has one kick return this year for 13 yards, and Gibson has a kick return for 9 yards.
“I think we’ve got some talented players,” Pinkel said, “but I figure we’re not just going to hit on it and everything just goes great, perfect all the time.”