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Missouri spring football preview: Special teams cratered almost as much as offense in 2015

We're continuing our look at the Tigers' depth chart heading into the spring. Spring football practices begin March 8, and Mizzou’s annual Black and Gold Spring game is on April 16 at 5pm on the SEC Network.

Finis Stribling could become Mizzou's lead kick returner this fall
Finis Stribling could become Mizzou's lead kick returner this fall

Special Teams

Seniors Juniors Sophomores Freshman Class of 2016
LS Jake Hurrell (R) 6'3 235 Corey Fatony 5'11 185 Tucker McCann 6'1 185
Seniors Juniors Sophomores Freshman Class of 2016
John Gibson (R) 6'0 190 Anthony Sherrils (R) 6'0 200 Cam Hilton 6'0 180 Jon Johnson (R) 5'10 175
Aarion Penton 5'10 190 Finis Stribling 5'11 175
Gone:

Andrew Baggett - kicker (15 XP, 16/20 FG: 80%: 63 points)

Returning Starters:

Corey Fatony - punter (81 punts: 42.9 avg., 43 kickoffs: 62.8 avg. 18 touchbacks), Jake Hurrell - Longsnapper

Other Returning:

John Gibson (13 KR: 14.8 avg.), Aarion Penton (1 KR: 12 avg., 15 PR: 7.7 avg., 1 TD), Anthony Sherrils (8 KR: 17.8 avg.), Cam Hilton (1 KR: 13 avg., 6 PR: 3.5 avg.), Finis Stribling (10 KR: 16.4 avg.), Jonathan Johnson

Newcomers:

Tucker McCann, Early Enrollees: Tucker McCann - kicker

Recap: Beyond the freshman All-American season from punter Corey Fatony, Mizzou’s 2015 special teams were not very good. Andrew Baggett finished just eight points shy of Mizzou’s all-time scoring record in a career with 355 over his four years, second behind Jeff Wolfert. Corey Fatony was named to the Ray Guy Award Watch List and finished the season ranked first among freshmen nationally in net punting. He also proved he had the speed to be a threat on fakes, taking a fake punt 26 yards against Vanderbilt.

In the return game, Mizzou really struggled to find a consistent return men. Part of that was due to an injury to freshman Jonathan Johnson, who many thought was a natural in that role. Statistically, Mizzou's best punt returner was Aarion Penton, but only because his 41-yard blocked punt return for a touchdown vs. SEMO counted. Cam Hilton's had a 62-yard punt return called back against South Carolina, too, which probably stand out as anomalies in retrospect. Anthony Sherrils (17.8 yards per return) and Finis Stribling (16.4) were the best kick returners, with John Gibson a close third (14.8). None were actually good.

Predictions: Corey Fatony and Tucker McCann start at punter and kicker respectively. Jonathan Johnson and Cam Hilton returning kicks and punts. Redshirt senior Jake Hurrell remains the long-snapper and Marvin Zanders bypasses Eric Laurent as the holder on kicks. Jonathan Johnson will get to test out his recovery from ankle surgery and should get the first shot at becoming Mizzou's punt return specialist. Finis Stribling and John Gibson begin the spring as Mizzou's kick returners.

What to Watch: How does Fatony rebound from setting the school record for punts in a season? Because let’s not do that again this year.

On a more serious note, improved consistency and accuracy on punts is to be expected. How does McCann look as Mizzou’s new long term replacement for Baggett. Can he provide both kickoff and field goal duties?

Can Mizzou find the next Marcus Murphy? Since we won’t really glean much from Mizzou’s punt and return practices until the games start, the main question will be who the coaches entrust with the jobs. If it’s a younger guy like Johnson, or perhaps even Ray Wingo, that’s a positive. If it’s an older guy like Gibson, that likely doesn’t bode well. Hilton looked capable in a few games last year, but he struggled occasionally with fumbles. In general, can Mizzou fix the costly penalties and poor blocking that doomed so many returns? We already know Mizzou has posted a job opening for a "special teams analyst" ... does that mean more changes?

Dan Keegan: Is it possible to be excited for a kicking recruit? If so, I’m all in on Tucker McCann. Corey Fatony provided a blueprint for the impact McCann could have in 2016. McCann will replace one of the better kickers in Missouri history in Andrew Baggett, a player with a marvelous career whose name will always serve as a gut punch to partisans. McCann should step instantly into his role while Fatony and Jake Hurrell will hold down their positions; the only specialist role with some competition will be kickoff duties. Fatony performed well in that spot in 2015, although McCann certainly has the big leg to unseat him.

Mizzou’s kicking game is in good -- uh, feet? -- but the same could hardly be said for the return game. Marcus Murphy’s departure to the NFL left a void that was never filled despite a myriad of players taking their turn. Oscar makes a great point above: it would be a great sign for Mizzou if a young gun grabbed those jobs, either Hilton or Johnson being the preferred man up. If Aarion Penton retreats back to field one single kick, I will shield my eyes like I do when a trailer for a horror movie comes on my television (I’m a huge wimp).

Bill C.: Mizzou's youth backfired on the special teams unit in about 18 different ways last year. You had young return guys like Stribling and Hilton both showing hints of potential while making freshman mistakes*. You had a ton of younger guys on the return teams, providing sketchy-at-best blocking. (I'm pretty sure not even Murph would have had as good a season last year with that blocking.)

Plus, if we're getting picky, you had Fatony fading drastically late in the season -- he averaged 44.6 yards per punt over the first eight games, then hit only 39.5 over the last four. We can joke about overuse and say that we were thankful his leg was just staying attached, but at the least it gave him something to strive for in the offseason as well.

That there will be more experience on the field for punts, kicks, punt returns, and kick returns will be an excellent thing. And if Jonathan Johnson is indeed able to provide the explosiveness we think he can in the return game, that's even better. Of course, we're still heading into the fall assuming a freshman is going to win the place-kicking job, and that brings a new wave of anxiety to the table. But I'm still relatively comfortable in saying that Missouri's special teams unit won't be worse in 2016 ... if only from a "can't get much worse" perspective.

* I think Hilton's fumble problem was overblown a bit -- fumbles are so completely random, and one of his "fumbles" (against Georgia) came from a hit that the SEC office later agreed should have been penalized -- but it remains a red flag against him until he proves it's not really an issue.