COLUMBIA, Mo. – In a season filled with as many negatives as positives, Missouri knows it has an equalizer in Marcus Murphy.
"Every time you see 'Murph' out there, everyone goes crazy," receiver Marcus Lucas said. "Everyone stands up, and everyone's into it."
For good reason.
Murphy's four kick returns for touchdowns are a school record, one he needed only seven games to set.
He leads the nation with three punt returns and ranks 10th with an average of 15.4 yards per return. His kickoff return average of 31.4 yards would rank sixth in the country, though he hasn't returned enough kickoffs to officially qualify.
With Missouri (4-4, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) gaining its fewest yards per game since 1995, Murphy's breakout performance couldn't come at a better time for the Tigers. Establishing field position has been critical, and Murphy likely will be counted on again as the team travels to face No. 8 Florida (7-1, 6-1) and its sixth-ranked defense.
"It's great to have a player like that back there that can touch the football and change the game," coach Gary Pinkel said. "Just give him some space, and he can make people miss. "
Murphy's latest touchdown on special teams came on a 98-yard kickoff return against No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 13 immediately following a lightning delay. Though the Tigers lost 42-10, offensive coordinator Dave Yost credited Murphy's return for energizing the team after it fell behind 28-0 midway through the second quarter. Including Murphy's return, Missouri outscored the Tide 10-7 for two quarters.
"That's a big spark, most of our production on offense," defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said.
Success hasn't always been easy to maintain for Murphy. After returning kicks during his freshman year, he missed the 2011 season recovering from a torn labrum. In addition to returning punts this year, he performed well enough to regain the primary kick returner job after playing Alabama, but promptly fumbled twice on special teams in his next game against Kentucky. He also fumbled as a tailback against the Tide.
Wind affected the first punt, resulting in Murphy diving forward for a ball he couldn't corral. The second was right to him, but he lost focus, thinking about his return before actually catching the ball.
"The more playing time you get, the more mistakes you'll make," Murphy said. "So you can just learn from that time, just go out and play the best you can, even after you make the mistakes."
The redshirt sophomore says doubt can enter the equation, but the team has a "5-second rule" to try to prevent that from happening. Still, even after scoring his first offensive touchdown of the season later in the game, he said the drops bothered him.
In addition to fielding punts and kickoffs, Murphy is the backup tailback. With only four carries in his previous four games, he rushed a season-high eight times against Kentucky for 43 yards. Yost said the team is hoping to give Murphy more touches, but it's been difficult given how few plays the offense has been able to run.
"It's just a part of the game plan," Murphy said. "If I get more touches, that's how it goes. But I'm just going to try to focus on making plays whenever I get the ball."
Murphy's 9-yard scamper into the end zone showed how valuable the 5-foot-9, 185-pound tailback can be as he made two cutbacks in a display of speed and misdirection.
"That's just him," tailbacks coach Brian Jones said. "It's just something that when you're out there and you're in the heat of the battle, it's an instinct. He just finds things and makes things happen and does a great job with it."