Good things are happening for Mizzou when do-it-all senior Marcus Murphy gets touches

Marcus Murphy is out to prove he's more than just an electric return man for the Tigers. 

L.G. Patterson/AP

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri senior Marcus Murphy earned his reputation as an elusive playmaker in the return game, where he’s been a starter when healthy since arriving in Columbia.

Now in his final season, the 5-foot-9 all-purpose back is out to prove he can also be a consistently reliable option out of the backfield. If he’s still got some extra time and energy, he might even play some receiver because hey, why not?

"As long as I have the ball in my hands, I just try to make a play," Murphy says. "I really take pride in being a playmaker, getting a lot of the momentum going, motivating the guys to come and get it going."

He’s continued to excel in that role this season, beginning with a much-needed 102-yard kickoff return after South Dakota State had cut the Tigers’ lead to 21-18 in the third quarter of the season opener. Last week at Toledo, Murphy caught a touchdown pass and totaled more than 100 yards of offense in a second straight game for the first time in his stellar career.

Murphy’s workload in the backfield doubled from his sophomore to junior season, and he responded by more than doubling his career highs with 601 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. He led the team with 1,425 all-purpose yards, but his 92 carries still ranked third on the team behind feature back Henry Josey and this year’s starter, Russell Hansbrough.

Josey’s graduation left a big hole, even with Hansbrough clearly ready to step up as a starter. The Tigers’ spread-out, fast-paced offense requires at least two quality tailbacks to run effectively for four quarters, and Murphy’s talents make him a perfect fit.

"One reason why I think we’ve been a reasonably good running football team the past few years is because we try to keep those guys fresh," Pinkel said. "They’re not as big as some of the backs, but they’ve got great quickness and speed and explosiveness, and we try to make sure they are fresh when they’re in there so you can get their top speed and quickness all the time."

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Few players in the SEC can match the top gear possessed by Murphy, a preseason All-American selection as a kick returner. In an offense loaded with athletes capable of breaking big plays, a strong argument can be made that he is the Tigers’ most explosive threat.

Wide receivers Darius White and Bud Sasser may be challenging that notion after taking advantage of Maty Mauk’s willingness and ability to throw the ball downfield in the first two weeks of the season. That success has often encouraged opposing defensive backs and even linebackers to take a few steps back, opening up other weapons for Mauk.

"That opens up for not only Murph but for Jimmie (Hunt) and Sean (Culkin) inside, too, and that’s a big thing," said Mauk, who was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for five touchdowns and rushing for another in Saturday’s 49-24 win over Toledo. "If Murph’s got the ball in his hands, there’s no doubt he can score every time he touches it."

Pinkel expects Hansbrough and Murphy to get something close to equal carries at least until the return of Morgan Steward, one of the team’s fastest players and perhaps the most physical option at 210 pounds. But Pinkel says Steward’s hip injury will keep him out at least a couple more weeks.

That might mean fewer looks at receiver for Murphy, who hasn’t lined up wide often in Mizzou’s first two games. But he’s still working hard to sharpen his route running after catching six passes for 61 yards out of the backfield in two games.

Murphy is happy to show off a turf burn on the upper part of his right arm he earned at Toledo, but so far it’s the only reminder of all the extra wear and tear that comes with getting 15 to 20 touches per game. That feels like just about the perfect number for the senior, who is eager to step up and lead his team any way he can.

"I’m watching a lot more film," says Murphy, who took a medical redshirt as a sophomore in 2010. "I’ve got a lot more free time to focus on just football, just trying to pick the guys up and just having as much fun as I can for my last year."

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