Marcus James and Shirdonya Mitchell don’t know who will break one first.
James and Mitchell, Missouri’s kick returners, have a preference on who will be the first Tiger this season to return a kick for a touchdown, though.
James votes for himself. He has done it before on an 80-yard run against Iowa State last season for the Tigers’ only punt return for a touchdown in the past 13 years.
Against No. 19 Kansas State on Saturday, James will likely break the school record for career combined kick return yards. James needs 22 yards to pass Mike Fink’s record of 1,692.
“(James) makes it look easy, and the good ones do,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said. “He’s just very, very good at it and being able to make good judgments.”
James is No. 16 in the nation in punt return average with 13.6 yards per return. Also, if James has a chance to return one, it probably means the Tigers’ score is in fair shape.
“If you think of it statistically, you want it to be me, because that means the defense is playing good,” James said.
Mitchell, MU’s kick returner for the past two seasons, doesn’t say what he wants to happen, only what he believes.
“I think it’s going to be him,” Mitchell said.
It’s tough for Mitchell to swing toward James. He has come so close.
Mitchell averaged 25.7 yards on his returns against Texas A&M on Saturday, almost identical to his season average of 25.2. On his 38-yard return in the first quarter, Mitchell made it to the Aggie 40 before he was tackled.
“I saw nothing but green turf,” Mitchell said. “And then I’m running through the hole and all of a sudden I look up, on the ground. I’m like, ‘How did this happen?”’
A year ago against Texas Tech, Mitchell felt worse. He returned a kickoff 89 yards from the Tigers’ end zone before the Red Raiders brought him down.
“It hurt my heart,” Mitchell said.
With 4.29 40-yard speed, Mitchell will be the fastest player in the game Saturday. The Wildcats’ kickoff return team ranks No. 18 in the country, though, allowing an average of 23.8 yards.
Pinkel has faith in Mitchell’s ability to swing a game’s momentum toward the Tigers.
“You’ve just got to give Mitchell a little space,” Pinkel said. “He’s going to have to break one of those.”
Mitchell has heard that a lot.
“Everyone’s always like, ‘You’re always getting close, getting close,’” Mitchell said. “I am getting close. I’m tired of getting close, though. I want to break at least one.”
The Tigers’ average start was on their 37 against Texas A&M, which Pinkel said pleased him. He has advice for his return specialists, though.
“Eventually what you’ve got to do, you’ve got to make one guy miss or you don’t get tripped up,” Pinkel said.
Mitchell, a senior, was a partial qualifier his freshman year and is attempting to gain an extra year of eligibility. If he makes sufficient academic progress toward a degree by May, he might get another year to play.
Mitchell hopes he can return next season so he can achieve a lofty goal for his 40-yard time.
“I’m trying to leave here at least with a 4.1,” Mitchell said.