Capitals

Mizzou's Murphy already has record for KR scores

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Mizzou's Murphy already has record for KR scores

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) 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.''

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Caps make second blue line addition, acquire Jakub Jerabek from Montreal

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USA TODAY Sports

Caps make second blue line addition, acquire Jakub Jerabek from Montreal

The Capitals continued to retool their scuffling blue line on Wednesday, acquiring 26-year-old defenseman Jakub Jerabek from Montreal in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2019.

The move comes a couple of days after GM Brian MacLellan dealt a conditional third-round selection to Chicago for swift skating Michal Kempny.

Both Jerabek and Kempny are left shot, puck-moving defensemen who move well and make crisp outlet passes. Both also hail from the Czech Republic.

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The team sees Jerabek as a No. 5 or 6, I’m told.

On Wednesday, the Caps also officially said goodbye to Taylor Chorney, who was claimed off waivers by Columbus. Chorney will report to the Blue Jackets.

The Caps were off on Wednesday as they made their way Florida for Thursday night’s meeting with the Panthers, so it’s unclear how Coach Barry Trotz intends to deploy his new defensemen.

But it’s probably safe to assume that Kempny will move into a spot within the top four with John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen.

MORE CAPITALS: GET TO KNOW MICHAL KEMPNY

That figures to leave Brooks Orpik and Jerabek on the third pair, while rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey jockey for position as the next man up.

Kempny is expected to make his Caps’ debut on Thursday night.

Is the Caps’ D corps better? Well, that remains to be seen. But it had become clear to MacLellan and Co. in recent weeks that the status quo was not going to cut it. This month, in fact, the team has allowed 39 goals in 10 games. Only the Rangers (40) have allowed more in the same span.

With the trade deadline looming next Monday, the Caps now have roughly $617,000 in cap space, according to www.capfriendly.com, and are at the roster maximum of 23 players. So they would need to make a move in order to add another body.

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Scott Brooks preparing Wizards for much tougher road ahead

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Scott Brooks preparing Wizards for much tougher road ahead

The Wizards entered the All-Star break having won seven of their previous nine games since John Wall went down with an injury, so a natural question to head coach Scott Brooks looking ahead to their first game back on Thursday was how he and his team can keep that momentum going in the second half.

Brooks immediately pointed to the Wizards' schedule, which gets notably more difficult in the coming weeks. They have a stretch of games over the next month-plus that features the best teams in basketball and Brooks knows that will be a big factor in whether they can sustain what they have going.

"Definitely the schedule gets tougher," Brooks said. "We've got a lot of good teams coming up starting with the first one in Cleveland. It's five games in seven nights against really good teams."

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In the next five weeks, the Wizards will play 15 of 17 games against teams currently holding playoff spots. That includes the Cavaliers, Warriors, Celtics, Spurs (twice), Raptors and Timberwolves. 

That will represent a marked shift for the Wizards, who to this point have the weakest strength of schedule. Though they boast impressive wins over the Celtics, Rockets, Raptors and Timberwolves, they are about to play teams of that caliber more frequently with few nights off to rest. They have four back-to-back sets all in the next three weeks.

The upcoming stretch has been on the Wizards' minds for a while. Several players referenced their tough schedule before the All-Star break, knowing those wins leading up to the time off could prove extra important in hindsight.

The Wizards return to action on Thursday night against the Cavaliers, a team that has already beaten them twice. Both of those games were against the old version of the Cavs before they traded much of their roster at the deadline.

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Gone are Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Iman Shumpert, Jae Crowder and Channing Frye. But they still have that guy LeBron James.

"Shoot, they looked good the other time, right? They beat us twice with the other group," Brooks noted. "LeBron is going to go down as one of the best ever. They are younger and more athletic. They're a good team and they still have an All-Star in [Kevin] Love who hasn't played because he's hurt."

The Cavs haven't lost in three games since the All-Star break and that includes road wins over the Celtics and Thunder. They look rejuvenated and, at least so far, improved from the aging, incongruent roster they had just weeks ago.

The Wizards have also been playing better lately, of course, and this upcoming stretch will be a major test for them. Wall has been out three weeks since he had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He is likely to miss another three-to-five weeks. The Wizards will have to get through this without him.

If they can remain competitive and even beat some of these elite teams, they will only gain more confidence in their potential. That's the way Brooks plans to approach the schedule.

"We still want to be a better team when John comes back," Brooks said. "But the schedule definitely gets a lot tougher."

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