COLUMBIA — Marcus Murphy had one man to beat.
With Missouri trouncing Southeastern Louisiana 34-3 in the third quarter Saturday, Lions punter Matt McCormick sent a low, wobbly kick spiraling awkwardly toward Murphy, the Tigers’ 5-foot-9 punt returner.
Sheldon Richardson was given a "vacation" at the Missouri football team's media day Monday. For details, go to the Missourian Sports Blog.
Murphy caught the ball at the 30-yard line, darted left, took a step back, maneuvered right and then took off down the right sideline.
With a host of blockers trailing him, Murphy saw that only one man stood in his path. The redshirt sophomore knew he had to get past him, both to help his team and maintain his own reputation.
“When I only saw the punter, I knew I had to make him miss,” Murphy said, laughing about it after the game. “My coaches, my parents, everybody would be on me if I let the punter bring me down, so I had to make him miss and get into the end zone.”
Fortunately for Murphy, he beat McCormick to the pylon, simultaneously saving himself from his family’s heckling and putting the Tigers up 40-3.
Less than a quarter later, Murphy struck again, taking another punt back 72 yards for another Missouri touchdown.
With the breakout performance, Murphy became the first Missouri player to record two return touchdowns in the same game. Unsurprisingly, he was named SEC Special Teams Player of the Week on Monday.
All this from a guy who didn’t play at all last season, and had never returned a punt in college, either.
After redshirting in 2011 because of a torn labrum in his shoulder, Murphy tried not to be too anxious in his first game in more than a year. He admitted that his mind was racing as he stood waiting to field his first punt as a Missouri Tiger.
Thinking, as he explained it, can get a returner into trouble.
“That is one problem that you can have — thinking a lot,” he said. “I try just to clear my mind, catch the ball and read the blocks once I catch the ball. But that’s the first thing that goes through my head – just catch the ball.”
Murphy, who beat out cornerback E.J. Gaines for the punt return duties after fall camp, seems to have solidified his spot at the position. Coach Gary Pinkel says that blockers are more focused on their assignments when they know they have a dangerous returner behind them.
In that regard, Missouri may have found its man.
“What happens for your punt return team is that now they realize they got a good guy back there, and they block a whole lot different,” Pinkel said. “I think that’s the way it’s going to be for our punt return team. It’s like, ‘Shoot, we got a guy back there. If we block for him, this guy can change football games.’”
As he darted into the open field Saturday, sprinting past white Louisiana State jerseys en route to the end zone, Murphy resembled another fast running back from the state of Texas – Missouri teammate Henry Josey.
Both players have similar sizes and builds and use their vision and speed to elude would-be tacklers. But when asked if Murphy’s speed is greater than his injured teammate’s, Murphy couldn’t give a clear answer. After all, it changes depending on when you ask.
“We have that problem every day. Sometimes it may be Henry, and some days it may be me,” he said. “We just have to see who it is that day.”
If he does hit daylight against Georgia on Saturday, that speed could carry Murphy to the end zone yet again.
As long as he gets past the punter, that is.