When Jeremy Maclin departed Missouri after the 2008 season, he left some big shoes to fill on the Tiger offense. But the bigger void turned out to be on special teams. While Danario Alexander's historic season at wide receiver lessened the blow of losing Maclin in the receiving corps, the return game took a hit.
After Maclin returned at least one punt and one kickoff for a touchdown in both 2007 and 2008, the Tigers failed to get across the goal line in either category last season. When 2010 opens, the Tigers will be looking for a return to many happy returns.
"It's a good scheme and everything, we're just going to have to stay on our blocks because last year we had a couple penalties," senior free safety Jasper Simmons said. "We're just going to do the same stuff and just play."
The Tigers return their two leaders in returns from last season, as Simmons (36 returns on kickoffs) and senior cornerback Carl Gettis (22 punt returns) are back for their final seasons. Simmons had 815 total return yards for an average of 22.6 a return, good for sixth in the Big 12. Gettis racked up 156 yards on punt returns for an average of 7.8 yards.
So far in camp both are getting practice with a host of other prospects looking to get into the return game. Simmons has been joined by junior wide receiver Wes Kemp and senior cornerback Munir Prince, both of whom saw action at kickoff returns last year. Also getting looks are redshirt sophomore cornerback Kip Edwards and freshman tailbacks Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy.
"The competition, it is pretty tough," Murphy said. "Everything is faster at this level. I just have to come out and work hard and get used to the speed and I think I'll be alright."
As for the most seasoned player in the group, Simmons' experience has helped him see the game better.
"It's a lot better because everything slows down and I get to see my different holes," Simmons said. "I know exactly where I'm going."
On punt returns Gettis has been joined by sophomore wide receiver T.J. Moe, Edwards and Murphy, along with Jimmie Hunt at times. With all the prospects for returns, the spots are in constant evaluation by the Missouri staff.
"Every job's open," head coach Gary Pinkel said. "Every guy is there. I think that when you've got some returning guys the challenge for the backup guys is to win the job. And that's kind of where we're looking at.
"We're constantly evaluating personnel. 'OK, who's the top three punt returners? Who's got a chance to beat out our starter?' Every day we're doing this."
Despite some true freshman getting some looks in camp, Pinkel said having a first-year player in that position wouldn't be ideal.
"You'd rather not have a first-year player in a punt return, kickoff return position," Pinkel said. "Kickoff return, okay, because if you fumble the ball generally you can get down on it and get back. But all those other things, they're just so hugely critical."
That's not to say a strong camp from one of the freshmen wouldn't sway the coaches' opinions. Pinkel mentioned Maclin as one of the rare examples.
"I've seen it happen before in some high level guys," Pinkel said. "The first year he played, the first punt returns he ever did were against Illinois in the Dome. And he ran one back for a touchdown, as a matter of fact.
"That's called good coaching."
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