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Can Luther Burden be the punt returner the Tigers have been missing?

The best Tigers seasons in recent years had dynamic returners. Can Burden immediately step into that role in 2022?

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Winning on the margins is important. Winning on the margins when you’re a mid-level SEC team? It’s a prerequisite.

For a team like Missouri, improved recruiting simply isn’t enough. Finishing this season with a winning record, given the Tigers’ schedule, is going to require out-scheming opponents on offense and defense, and out-producing opponents on special teams.

A “successful” season for Missouri probably results in somewhere between seven and nine wins this season. Every SEC team not named Mississippi State (more on them in a moment) that won between seven and nine games over the last three full seasons finished the season ranked among the top 51 nationally in SP+ special teams rankings.

  • 2021 - Kentucky (46), Tennessee (12), Arkansas (36), Mississippi State (125)
  • 2019 - Kentucky (32), Tennessee (51), Auburn (11), Texas A&M (45)
  • 2018 - South Carolina (7), Missouri (51), Texas A&M (28), Mississippi State (101), Auburn (43)

Mississippi State is clearly the outlier, and they’re an outlier for a reason. If the Tigers are able to finish with the best defense in the country, as Mississippi State did in 2018, or a top 30ish unit on both sides of the ball as the Bulldogs did last season, then Mississippi State is a perfect formula to follow. I view that as, umm, unlikely, and therefore believe we can throw out the team from Starkvegas.

Missouri’s special teams are boosted by one of the best kickers in the country, a man sent to Columbia to become a local legend. The #ThiccerKicker, Harrison Mevis, is a walking top-20 special teams unit on his own. He has never missed an extra point, and his accuracy on field goals last season - while borderline unprecedented in Missouri’s history - was “unacceptable” for Mevis.

There is still plenty of room for improvement for the Tigers on special teams. Can you remember the last time Mizzou had a threat returning kicks? What about punts? It’s been a minute. And that needs to improve in 2022.

Mizzou Punt & Kick Return Production in SEC:

Year: KR Return Avg (SEC Rank): Main KR: PR Return Avg (SEC Rank): Main PR: Return TDs:
Year: KR Return Avg (SEC Rank): Main KR: PR Return Avg (SEC Rank): Main PR: Return TDs:
2021 18.9 (8th) Kris Abrams-Draine 5.3 (14th) Boo Smih 1
2020 16.3 (12th) Tyler Badie 4.1 (13th) Cade Musser, Kris Abrams-Draine 0
2019 17.9 (13th) Tyler Badie 11.2 (9th) Richaud Floyd 1
2018 19.7 (12th) Tyler Badie 2.6 (14th) Jonathon Johnson 0
2017 21.6 (6th) Larry Rountree III 16.6 (2nd) Richaud Floyd 2
2016 18.9 (13th) Alex Ross, Jonathon Johnson 11.1 (4th) Jonathon Johnson, Chris Black 1
2015 15.1 (14th) John Gibson, Finis Stribling IV 5.9 (12th) Aarion Penton 0
2014 24.7 (3rd) Marcus Murphy 10.4 (6th) Marcus Murphy 3
2013 23.1 (6th) Marcus Murphy 6.7 (9th) Marcus Murphy 0
2012 24.7 (1st) Marcus Murphy, TJ Moe 15.0 (1st) Marcus Murphy 5

Missouri finished the season ranked among the bottom half of the SEC in kick return average in six of the last seven seasons, with the lone exception coming in 2017 (sixth). The Tigers also ranked among the SEC’s three worst punt return teams, on average, in three of the past four seasons. The lone exception was 2019 (ninth).

This lack of explosiveness in the return game coincides with a dip in offensive production. When combined, that sets up a lack of scoring. The opposite was also true, however. Missouri’s most successful seasons in recent years all coincided with some of the Tigers’ best returners. Mizzou has won double-digit games five times in the last 50 years.

Those five teams included, arguably, the two best returners in Mizzou football history: Jeremy Maclin (2007 & 2008) and Marcus Murphy (2010, 2013 & 2014). If you expand the list, Missouri’s had some pretty darn good returners over the last 20 years. Some of the best that immediately come to mind:

Kickoff Returns:

  • Tony Temple (2005)
  • Jeremy Maclin (2007, 2008)
  • Jasper Simmons (2009)
  • TJ Moe (2011)
  • Marcus Murphy (2010, 2012-2014)

Punt Returns:

  • Marcus James (2000-2003)
  • Jeremy Maclin (2007-2008)
  • Marcus Murphy (2010-2014)
  • Richaud Floyd (2017, 2019)

Do the Tigers have anyone on the current roster who can add the juice J-Mac brought to the field when he took a punt return to the house in his Mizzou debut in 2007 against Illinois? Do they have someone who can single-handedly win a football game the way Marcus Murphy did in 2014 with multiple return touchdowns in The Swamp against Florida?

For me, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Luther Burden has a chance to be Missouri’s best punt returner since Marcus Murphy. I don’t say that lightly. Burden was one of the best punt returners in the history of St. Louis high school football. He returned 21 punts last season for East St. Louis High School. Of those 21 returns, eight resulted in a touchdown. Returning one punt for a touchdown is a successful season for most. Returning nearly 40 percent for a touchdown is, frankly, impossible.

Now, it should be noted Burden reportedly hasn’t been getting all of the run with the first team return unit throughout fall camp. I suspect that will change when push comes to shove and he shows what he can do when the lights are the brightest.

Jeremy Maclin finished his Mizzou career with three touchdowns on 48 punt returns. Marcus Murphy finished with four on 75 punt returns.

If we set the over/under on 3.5 punt return touchdowns for Burden in his career, I would take the over (barring injury). In fact, if I made a way-too-early prediction for the home-opener against Louisiana Tech, it’s this: Luther Burden will score a punt return touchdown, proving once again what a special talent the Tigers were able to add in the former 5-star recruit.