COLUMBIA — The production the Missouri offense lost with Jeremy Maclin's jump to the NFL certainly isn't small. His 1,553 yards from scrimmage is a lot of turf to account for. But at least the Tigers' offense features a few guys that have found the Faurot Field end zone before.
The search for a replacement in the return game, however, is starting from scratch.
Maclin delivered plenty of highlights on special teams in his time at MU, including his 75-yard punt return for a touchdown in last year's Alamo Bowl. But as the Tigers move closer to the team's first organized scrimmage of the fall Saturday, there still isn't an established depth chart for either the punt or kickoff returners.
Jared Perry, Munir Prince, Jasper Simmons and Kip Edwards have worked back deep on kickoffs, and the rotation for returning punts has also included sophomore wide receiver Jerrell Jackson and redshirt freshman receiver Gahn McGaffie. That's a lot of names, and the coaching staff has noticed.
"The hard part is that we have a number of guys — three, four, five guys," wide receivers coach Andy Hill said. "You want to get it down to where they're competing, where you find the one or two top guys."
The problem, according to Hill, is a good one to have. To him, the hazy view of the depth chart results from an abundance of talent at the position, not a lack of it.
"We think there's a lot of raw ability," Hill said. "Right now it's all details. We're trying to make sure that they're communicating right, catching the ball moving forward, just getting everything right."
For head coach Gary Pinkel, the difficulties in the search result from the demanding skill-set for players at the position. While kickoff return is often about vision and pure speed, being a punt returner requires a mistake-free set of hands.
"Punt return is probably the biggest concern, because at that position you have to catch the football," Pinkel said. "It's about the guy who can catch the best, and then maybe do something with it afterward."
Along with the physical traits, Jackson thinks that stepping into the punt returner role requires a certain type of mindset, especially for those playing the position at the collegiate level for the first time.
"You've got to have a big heart to do punt return," Jackson said. "Especially in college and the NFL, the punters kick the ball so high, and it allows the gunners to get down there. You've got to be aware the whole time."
When the competition does start to narrow down, Jackson says the players involved won't be concerned with filling the "pretty big shoes, boots, even" that Maclin has left behind. And Hill even thinks that without Maclin around, there will be new opportunities for both individual players and the Missouri return game.
"When you take a first-round draft pick out, there's an opportunity for the next guy to come and go do it," Hill said. "Last year, they kicked away from (Maclin) a lot. So hopefully this year they kick to us, and the guy we've got back there will be good, whoever it's going to be."
INJURY UPDATE: Freshman defensive lineman Marvin Foster will undergo surgery in the coming week on his injured right knee. Right now it looks like he has an injury to the ACL, and possibly a torn meniscus.
The MRI results on redshirt freshman linebacker Xavier Gooden's sprained foot were negative.
Senior defensive tackle Jaron Baston sat out of drills today with a sore groin.
GABBERT WATCH: Much has been made about sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert's arm strength, and rightfully so. Working out of the shadow of his own goal post in an 11-on-11 drill, Gabbert rolled to his right and fired a strike back across his body to Danario Alexander coming over the middle that looked far less dangerous than it was.
But Gabbert's touch on intermediate to deep routes has also been impressive. In an 1-on-1 passing drill Thursday morning, Gabbert put a perfectly lofted ball into Jackson's outstretched hands on a 30-yard post-corner route.
IN THE TRENCHES: After the offensive line showed a decisive advantage in 1-on-1 pass-rushing drills Wednesday, the defensive line bounced back to break about even Thursday morning.
With senior defensive tackle Jaron Baston sitting out practice with a groin injury, redshirt freshman Jimmy Burge got more reps with the first and second teams and performed well. On offense, sophomore guard Austin Wuebbels, who is currently working with the first team at left guard, and sophomore backup J.T. Beasley were standouts. Wuebbels showed a great base and balance in his pass set, as well as some of the mean streak that people have noticed throughout fall practices.
LAYING THE WOOD: Senior safety Hardy Ricks has been putting licks on ball-carriers near the line of scrimmage all week, and several other defensive backs joined in the act Thursday. Junior college transfer Jarrell Harrison had a few big hits of his own during the morning session, and junior cornerback Kevin Rutland jarred a pass loose with a big collision during a full team session.