During a practice before Missouri’s season-opening football game, Alec Abeln was just a fill-in.
Mizzou was practicing an offensive package that included a defensive player in the backfield. But defenders were on another field, so Abeln, a senior who made nine combined starts the past two seasons, took the spot. And months later the 305-pound Abeln saw his first significant action this season — at fullback.
“At first I thought they were kidding,” Abeln said of offensive line coach Glen Elarbee’s and tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley’s belief that he could move into the backfield.
They were not. And Abeln’s playing time indicated part of a greater commitment by Missouri to provide extra blockers for the running game, something the Tigers might continue to do moving forward after running for 213 yards against Kentucky, which had the nation’s third-best run defense in the country coming into last weekend.
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Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said Missouri’s use of Abeln at fullback going forward will be situational. This weekend could present another situation that necessitates it, or at least more tight ends blocking along the line of scrimmage. Mizzou faces another of the country’s top defenses in No. 4 Georgia. The Bulldogs have ceded just 126 total rushing yards in their past two contests, blowout wins of Vanderbilt and Tennessee.
Abeln split time at fullback with two tight ends, Kendall Blanton and Albert Okwuegbunam. Quarterback Drew Lock sometimes shifted them out of the backfield and onto the line of scrimmage, and the Tigers even used more than one of them to block for a run on the same play. Ish Witter, who ran for 139 yards in 17 carries against the Wildcats, said the package makes it “obvious” Missouri is going to run, but it worked anyway.
This was not the personnel associated with Missouri’s spread offense that, at its best, blitzes opponents with frenzied pace. But in part because of the established running attack, Mizzou’s passing game looked its best in weeks against Kentucky. Lock said the Wildcats stacked more defenders near the line of scrimmage, which opened up throws downfield.
“That’s what we’re going to end up doing, I think, the rest of the year for our game plan,” Lock said. “Move guys around. Get into different sets. Be smart enough to know what the looks are that we’re going to get when we get into our motions.”
Okwuegbunam, a redshirt freshman, said coaches cycled different players in to be an extra blocker to keep them fresh. And with tight end Jason Reese expected back Saturday after missing the Kentucky game, the Tigers could have another person to use.
Witter called the extra blockers “a dream.” More Tigers blocking for him means more people the generously listed 5-foot-10 running back can hide behind. The situation is perhaps even better for Abeln, who said he was thankful to his coaches for giving him a chance to play.
“How is playing without leg braces?” center Trystan Castillo asked Abeln after practice Tuesday.
“It’s wonderful,” Abeln said. “It’s the most freeing thing there is.”
Saturday was Abeln’s first time in the backfield since his freshman year of high school, when he was a kicker, and he had to turn his stiff neck to see if Lock was sending him in motion. He also had to wear a new number, No. 49, so he could be an eligible receiver without checking with referees. It remains doubtful Lock targets the former high school volleyball player, though.
“He keeps asking for a pass,” Lock said, “so we’ll see how that unfolds.”