Though the Missouri Tigers will have to deal with the loss of running back Henry Josey after he decided to declare early for the NFL Draft and ended up going undrafted, there should be very little drop-off at the position in 2014. Redshirt senior Marcus Murphy and junior Russell Hansbrough, who combined with Josey to form a three-headed monster in 2013, will return, but redshirt sophomore Morgan Steward may be the best of them all after showing his skills during a breakout spring.
Unlike many of the running backs who have seen playing time under Gary Pinkel, Steward is big and powerful at six feet tall and 210 pounds. On top of that, he’s very quick, having been clocked at a 4.35 40-yard dash this spring. Following a redshirt freshman year which saw him run for 84 yards on 21 attempts, Steward took advantage of injuries to Murphy and Hansbrough during spring practices and made the most of his opportunities. In the team’s first spring scrimmage, Steward ran for 117 yards and three touchdowns. While he wasn’t as successful in the Tigers’ official spring game, it’s worth noting that he got the most carries of any Mizzou back, even with a healthy Murphy.
The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Murphy will once again look to act as the Tigers’ primary kick and punt returner while also serving as a change-of-pace back. Murphy, who previously has received both All-Conference and All-American honors as a returner, was named to the second-team All-SEC squad as an all-purpose player in 2013. While he’s not the biggest guy in the world, Murphy is a legitimate game breaker, and his stats back that up, as he picked up 680 yards and 10 touchdowns from scrimmage and 745 yards through the return game last season. He’s probably only good for 8-10 touches from scrimmage per game, but he seems to make the most of each play that he’s on the field for.
Hansbrough, who looked like a potential star in the practices preceding his freshman year, will look to take his game to the next level after two unspectacular seasons. Last year, he ran for 685 yards on 114 carries, but he had just four touchdowns, trailing Josey’s 17 and Murphy’s 10. He should get a significant bump in snaps with Josey gone, even if Steward has a vastly expanded role in the offense.
Beyond the big three, the Tigers have walk-ons Tyler Hunt, Miles Drummond, Andrew Stevens, and Steven Blakley, none of whom figure to see any meaningful playing time in 2014. Trevon Walters and Ish Witter, two 2014 recruits from Florida, will enroll for the fall semester. Walter is rather highly-regarded, though it seems unlikely that he’ll push for playing time as a true freshman with the exceptional depth that Mizzou has at the position this year.
With the Tigers having lost their top three receivers from 2013 (Dorial Green-Beckham, Marcus Lucas, and L’Damian Washington), the running game will be an increased emphasis for the team this season. A large chunk of the team’s success in 2014 will depend on whether Steward, Murphy, and Hansbrough are up to the challenge of getting through SEC defenses and making big plays.