Although a diminutive player, Marcus James has left a big void on the MU football team.
James, a 5-foot-8 wide receiver whose eligibility has expired, produced nearly every time he touched the ball as a punt returner last season. James finished the season sixth in the nation averaging 14.5 yards, and Missouri’s Special Teams Player of the Year award for the second straight season.
Seniors Thomson Omboga and Shirdonya Mitchell and redshirt freshman Marcus Woods will try to replace James on punt returns this season and all three said they think they have a claim to the job.
Coach Gary Pinkel said the final decision about the punt return duties and all positions will be finalized by Monday.
Omboga said he entered the preseason practices as the No. 1 return man, but he has missed some time because of a rib injury. Omboga, who has been catching punts for three years, said he doesn’t feel pressure to live up to the standards James set.
“I would feel comfortable, and I would want to back there as the No. 1 guy,” Omboga said.
Omboga has received a strong push from Mitchell, who served as the primary returner on kickoffsin 2003. Mitchell is one of the Tigers’ fastest players, for he ran a 4.28 40-yard dash during the spring practice.
“I feel like I’m doing very well because at one point, I think it was last (year’s) two-a-days, punts was not one of my favorite things to do,” Mitchell said. “I kept dropping them. I was inconsistent. This year, I’ve got more confidence. I’m getting more reps at it. It’s a battle right now.”
Mitchell, likely, will get most of the touches as the kick returner again this year.
“It’s about time we return one (for a touchdown),” Mitchell said. “Everybody’s been talking about how we’ve been getting close. We got close last year. I think it’s our year to return one.”
Mitchell, who for the second straight season averaged 24.1 yards on kickoff returns, has come close on several occasions to running back a kickoff. Ricky Doby’s 85-yard return for a touchdown in 1982 is the most recent time the Tigers have returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
Mitchell had returns of more than 40 yards several times in 2003, but couldn’t finish the run. He came the closest in 2002 against Texas Tech when he returned a kickoff 89 yards to the 11. That return was the longest return in school historysince 1976.
The Tigers do have a return touchdown since Doby’s return in 1982, for James returned a punt for a touchdown against Iowa State in 2002.
Woods has explosive speed similar to Mitchell’s. Woods said the Tigers must find a way to again to have a successful punt return game.
“Not any added pressure, other than the pressure I put on myself,” Woods said. “Being the best is always my No. 1 goal, and I think I can only be the best if I exceed what he has accomplished so far.”
For Woods to win and hold the job, he said he needs to improve his ability to catch the ball.
James finished a strong career as the holder of three school records, including highest average gain per punt return.
“We’ve got to get up there at least, but he was a special player,” Mitchell said.