Just How Dire is the Missouri Tigers’ Running Back Situation?

Nov 27, 2015; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Missouri Tigers running back Ish Witter (21) rushes as Arkansas Razorbacks defensive back Rohan Gaines (26) defends during the second quarter at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 27, 2015; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Missouri Tigers running back Ish Witter (21) rushes as Arkansas Razorbacks defensive back Rohan Gaines (26) defends during the second quarter at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports /

As things stand now, the Missouri Tigers have just one running back on their roster who’s ever carried the ball in a college game. Could this be a major issue in 2016?

While the aspect of Mizzou’s historically bad 2015 offense that was most talked about was the passing game (and deservedly so, considering that Drew Lock threw for just three touchdowns after Maty Mauk’s suspension in late September), the running game was an outright trainwreck as well.

Senior Russell Hansbrough was expected to be the Tigers’ bell cow in the backfield, which became necessary after Marcus Murphy matriculated from the program and anticipated contributor Morgan Steward re-aggravated a serious hip injury. After suffering an ankle injury in the season opener, though, Hansbrough never really got going, carrying the ball 111 times for just 436 yards and one touchdown through 11 games.

The Tigers ultimately ended up getting more valuable production out of sophomore Ish Witter and former walk-on Tyler Hunt. Witter led the team with 126 carries for 518 yards, though he scored just one touchdown, and he also caught 15 balls for 143 yards. Hunt, meanwhile, had 42 carries for 185 yards—good for an average of 4.4 yards per attempt, which exceed both Witter and Hansbrough’s numbers in that category—and he also caught six passes for 203 yards. Hunt, who had been nothing more than a strong special-teamer prior to 2015, surprisingly ended up as the only Mizzou running back to score multiple touchdowns, picking up one each on the ground and through the air.

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Since the end of last season, the Tigers have lost Hansbrough and Hunt, both seniors who exhausted their eligibility, Chase Abbington and Morgan Steward, both of whom retired from football despite having eligibility remaining, and Marquise Doherty, who has decided to transfer to a junior college and focus on baseball for the 2016-17 school year. In addition, running back Nate Strong, who has been part of the Tigers’ recruiting class on National Signing Day for two straight years now, will spend yet another season in junior college and will not be able to enroll at Mizzou this fall.

That leaves Mizzou with just three returning scholarship running backs: Witter, plus redshirt sophomore Trevon Walters and redshirt freshman Ryan Williams. They’ll rely on Witter to be their top back, which isn’t the worst thing in the world considering that he averaged 4.8 yards per carry over the last four games of 2015, but behind him the options are a major unknown, as Witter was the only back on the Tigers’ spring roster who had ever received a collegiate carry.

Walters missed nearly all of 2015 after suffering a torn ACL last spring, and he has yet to record a collegiate carry. As Williams’ redshirt freshman status suggests, he has yet to appear in a game for the Tigers. Both Walters and Williams were ranked as three-star recruits coming out of high school, so as things stand now, there’s no reason to think that either of them is a surefire candidate for the starting job.

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One player who has already worked his way into the conversation is junior walk-on Shaun Conway, a product of McCluer South-Berkeley high school in St. Louis. After serving as a member of the scout team last year, Conway took full advantage of the Tigers’ strength and conditioning program and gained roughly 20 pounds before the start of spring practice. He used his newfound strength to inject more physicality into his game, and it definitely paid off for him, as he received reps with the first and second team offenses this spring.

We’ve seen other Mizzou walk-ons have strong springs in the past, only to be passed over for scholarship players once fall practice begins, but with as thin as the Tigers’ running back depth is this year, perhaps Conway will get a shot. His build doesn’t differentiate him much from Mizzou’s other backs, so he’s probably more of a depth player than he is a candidate to be a rotational back, but that’s perfectly acceptable, especially considering the injuries that affected Mizzou’s backfield depth last year.

Come the beginning of fall practice, the Tigers will also get a player who could immediately make an impact in four-star freshman running back Damarea Crockett. Under Gary Pinkel, the Tigers generally avoided using true freshmen in the backfield, but considering the Tigers’ lack of depth, coupled with the fact that Crockett already has a physically mature body (5’11, 212) and was ranked as the ninth-best running back in the country according to Rivals, it definitely seems possible that Crockett could see action as a true freshman, even if it’s strictly as a backup or rotational option. The best case scenario would probably be to have Crockett hit the ground running and unseat Witter, who’s made the most of his opportunity, but probably doesn’t have the ideal skills required to be a successful starting running back in the SEC.

One other player who’s likely to be a factor—perhaps even as the starter—at running back for the Tigers is Alex Ross. Ross, a fifth-year back who played the previous four seasons at Oklahoma, is taking advantage of the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule to play his final season at another school, and it’s expected that Mizzou will officially announce his addition to the roster within the next few weeks.

Alex Ross
Nov 1, 2014; Ames, IA, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Alex Ross (28) rushes against the Iowa State Cyclones at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports /

If he ultimately ends up joining the program, Ross will have the most career yardage (767) and rushing touchdowns (5) of any back on the Mizzou roster. Though he was mainly reduced to kick return duty last year with the emergence of Samaje Perine as the Sooners’ bell cow, Ross had a banner junior season, running for 595 yards and four touchdowns on 88 carries, an average of 6.8 yards per attempt. In more limited action last year, he was still solid, running for 172 yards on 32 carries.

Ross would bring some much-needed experience to the Tigers’ backfield, and at the very least, he’d provide some proven insurance if Crockett doesn’t end up turning into a playable member of the Tigers’ backfield rotation as a freshman. In addition, his 6-foot-1, 221-pound build would make him a logical partner in a rotation with a smaller, more explosive back such as Witter. (As an aside, Ross would also be a valuable addition to the Tigers’ return game, as he’s averaged 25.7 yards per kick return and scored two touchdowns over the past two years for the Sooners.)

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However things turn out, the Tigers aren’t going to have much experience in the backfield when the regular season comes around, and we’ll probably see quite a bit of mixing and matching, especially with a new offense and a new offensive coordinator. The fact that said coordinator, Josh Heupel, worked with Ross from 2012-14 at Oklahoma may give the transfer an edge in the backfield battle if he ultimately ends up as a Tiger. It’d probably work best for continuity purposes if Crockett walked in looking ready to compete in the SEC, but as we saw with Lock last season, rushing a heralded recruit into the starting lineup isn’t always a good idea. Ultimately, Barry Odom and his staff are just going to have to hope that their competitors’ inability to do extensive tape scouting on their backs provides them with a slight edge, and that at least one of them can exceed expectations and turn the running game into a much more formidable force than it was in 2015.