Missouri football team hunting for return man

Tuesday, August 16, 2011 | 7:34 p.m. CDT
Junior defensive back Kip Edwards tosses the ball to a teammate will practicing punt returns during Tuesday's practice. "... if you drop it, everyone in America is going to know ..." Edwards said.

COLUMBIA — Speaking strictly in terms of visuals, it looks like a lonely position.

Out there all by himself, he has no teammate to high five, no opponent to talk to. And yet every eye in the 60,000-seat stadium is on him. He has to find the sky-high kick, catch the not-so-round ball and try to not be leveled by 11 angry men.

Practice Report

In the Trenches

Missouri’s new-look offensive line got it’s first full day of practice in Tuesday, with sophomore Justin Britt taking over for injured senior Elvis Fisher at left tackle and senior Jayson Palmgren sliding over to center while junior Travis Ruth recovers from a strained Achilles tendon in his right foot.

Fisher suffered a ruptured left patellar tendon Monday morning, ending his season. According to coach Gary Pinkel, Fisher was scheduled for knee surgery at 3 p.m. Tuesday. Ruth was in a walking boot for the second straight day.

Britt emphatically won a couple of one-on-one battles during pass rush drills against sophomore defensive end Michael Sam, preventing him from even laying a finger on the tackling dummy on more than one occasion.

According to the Missouri athletics website, Britt spent much of the spring at both guard positions and at center. He was listed on the most recent depth chart, from July 22, as the backup left guard. Now, his versatility has made Britt the starting left tackle.

Pinkel, when asked if he was still considering other options for replacing Fisher, said, “We got the right guy.”

Britt came up limping after a play during 11-on-11 practice, but it didn’t seem to concern Pinkel.

“He’s fine,” Pinkel said. “Everybody’s limping."

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But there is no shortage of Missouri football players competing to have that responsibility added to their job description.

A group including junior defensive back Kip Edwards, sophomore defensive back E.J. Gaines, freshman wide receiver Jimmie Hunt and junior wide receivers T.J. Moe and Gahn McGaffee were outside working on catching punts before the Tigers started practice Tuesday morning.

“I would say it is a lonely position,” Edwards said. “Because if you drop it, everyone in America is going to know you dropped it. Especially if I drop it, T.J. Moe is going to let me know. He did that in the scrimmage.”

With rain in the forecast, Tuesday’s practice was held inside Devine Pavilion, but before the rain started, the players wanted to sneak in a few minutes of punt catching out from underneath the facility’s roof. Once inside, because punts often hit the beams across the ceiling with a loud thud, those vying for the return job are tossed balls before they start evading tacklers.

They will tell you that’s easier.

“It’s a whole lot easier getting them tossed to you,” Edwards said. “You don’t have to look up in the sky. You don’t have to worry about people running 100 miles per hour running at you.”

The position battle follows the graduation of Carl Gettis, who returned punts for the past two seasons. Of the 51 punts returned by the Tigers over the past two seasons, Gettis returned 46 of them. Missouri hasn’t scored a punt-return touchdown since Jeremy Maclin’s return against Northwestern in the 2008 Alamo Bowl.

Only one Tiger competing for the job even has punt-return statistics. Edwards registered one of the two non-Gettis returns in 2010, taking it back for just four yards.

McGaffee might not have any punt-return stats, but he did return the opening kickoff of last season’s Homecoming game 86 yards for a touchdown against Oklahoma. He said the key to returning punts is making the first guy miss. He said he likes returning punts and has been doing it his whole life.

T.J. Moe stressed that though Gettis returned most of the punts over the past two seasons, other players are always practicing returns. So, the players might not be as inexperienced as the stats make them seem.

The battle to become the starting punt returner is anything but lonely. Edwards said he is learning a lot from Moe regarding technique. The teammates playfully give each other a hard time when mistakes are made, and, all in good fun, they even try to cause mistakes with taunts and distractions.

“I’ve been trying to call their name as they’re trying to catch the ball,” Edwards said. “'Hey watch out! You’ve got a ball coming at you!’ But so far it’s not working.”

When the player who wins the job appears on the field Sept. 3 against Miami of Ohio, it might appear he is all by himself. But several of his teammates will know the competitive drive it took to get there.

"It's real competitive," Edwards said. "Somebody drops it, they're going to hear it. 'Coach! Why is he back here still?' It's just real competitive back here."

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