COLUMBIA — Four yards is all he needs.
Three yards, and Marcus Murphy will call for a fair catch. But four is enough.
It is enough room for him to make someone miss, he said.
When fielding a punt, a returner must make a split-second decision based on how close the kicking team's coverage is to him. The returner also needs to have his eyes looking up to catch the ball.
Even with his eyes up, Murphy can sense when defenders are closing in. The junior from DeSoto, Texas, knows that if he can get past the first defender, he'll be able to see the rest of the field clearly.
When Missouri played University of Central Florida, Murphy caught a punt with a defender only four yards away from him. A teammate blocked the nearby defender just as Murphy made the catch. Free to return the ball, Murphy sharply cut to the left, surprising two Central Florida players in front of him and making them fall to the ground.
The end zone has been a familiar place for Murphy. He has scored five touchdowns, more than anyone on the team besides Kendial Lawrence, who has eight. All of Lawrence's scores came on runs, but Murphy's are a mixed bag.
He has just 32 rushing attempts on the season, compared to Lawrence's 136. As the No. 2 running back on the depth chart, Murphy had to find other ways to have the ball in his hands.
And he has. Murphy has touchdowns on three punt returns, one kickoff return and a run.
After starting the season off just returning punts, Murphy earned a spot on kickoff returns. He even took one all the way back against the No. 1 team in the country, Alabama.
"I tried to tell everybody in the last year or two that he was going to be doing this," receiver T.J. Moe said. "He's not disappointing."
Even his 9-yard touchdown run against Kentucky looked more like a punt return because of the way Murphy quickly burst to the outside of the field.
"Murph's doing a heck of a job," cornerback Kip Edwards said. "Should be All-American punt returner this year."
When Edwards asked Murphy why he's so good at returning punts, Murphy joked that it was because he is from Dallas. Murphy has always taken pride in having the ball in his hands, even while playing at DeSoto High School. Even back then, Murphy saw punt and kick returns as opportunities to show his ability and quickness.
"I took pride in it in high school, and coming in now, it can get you some looks for the next level," Murphy said.
His returns have certainly gotten him noticed. Murphy has been named SEC Special Teams Player of the Week twice so far this season.
But it hasn't all been easy for Murphy either. He missed the entire 2011 season with a shoulder injury.
Murphy has also had a couple of low points this season. In a game against Vanderbilt, he dislocated his right ring finger after a 25-yard run.
Against Kentucky, Murphy struggled to field punts. He fumbled the first two punts he handled in the game.
Murphy quickly bounced back from both setbacks. But at his size, fielding punts seems dangerous. Murphy is generously listed at 5 foot 9 inches and 185 pounds. If he were to take a direct hit from a tackler, he might go flying. But that doesn't seem to happen too often to the lightweight running back.
"The main thing is when guys get hit hard, and you know, blasted, I feel that they let the tackler square up on him and make a good tackle," Murphy said. "With me, I just try to make the tackler as awkward as I can, you know, just make it hard for him to wrap up and use fundamentals.
"I just give him a last-minute move or just give him a head fake just to throw him off a little bit and take something off the impact."
Murphy protects himself with his quickness. Moe sees the returner's small size as an advantage, mentioning Dante Hall and Darren Sproles, smaller players with great success returning punts in the NFL.
He may not be big, but Murphy doesn't always have to try to avoid contact. Moe says Murphy can be a physical runner.
"He's a powerful little kid too," Moe said. "He ran over somebody on Florida's defense on a sweep pass."
Murphy hopes to reach the end zone a few more times before the season is over. He wants the ball in his hands, and he doesn't care how he gets it.
"Once you get the ball in your hand it's pretty much all the same," Murphy said. "You've got to read your blocks and just make people miss."