University of Missouri

Mizzou’s improved running-back depth fuels hope for moribund ground attack

Mizzou coach Barry Odom addresses Trevon Walters' dismissal, kicking game

First-year Missouri football coach Barry Odom discussed the decision to dismiss running back Trevon Walters, who was arrested Friday for felony stealing, and the kicking game among other topics Monday after practice in Columbia.
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First-year Missouri football coach Barry Odom discussed the decision to dismiss running back Trevon Walters, who was arrested Friday for felony stealing, and the kicking game among other topics Monday after practice in Columbia.

Only a few plays into fall camp, Missouri freshman running back Damarea Crockett took exception to a whack from a defensive player. Pushing, shoving and hollering ensued.

“It’s rough out there,” Crockett said. “That’s all I’m going to say on that. … You get hit hard; you push around. That’s football camp.”

It’s also a good sign for a Tigers offense that didn’t show enough fight last season, especially with respect to the run game.

Mizzou managed only 1,385 yards rushing last season in 12 games. The Tigers’ 115.4-yard average per game ranked 120th in the country among 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams and was the program’s lowest per-game average since 1994 (107.9), a 3-8- 1 campaign in Larry Smith’s first with MU.

It’s a performance Missouri is trying very hard to forget.

“It’s in the past,” junior running back Ish Witter said. “You can’t look back and just have to worry about what’s going on in the future.”

Witter ranked 184th in the country with a team-leading 518 rushing yards last season and the Tigers totaled five rushing touchdowns. During the 2015 Football Bowl Subdivision season, 239 individual players rushed for at least five touchdowns.

Georgia Southern, the top rushing team in the FBS last season, had five players with at least 583 yards rushing and six touchdowns. Baylor had four players eclipse Witter’s 518 yards and eight teams — New Mexico, Arkansas State, Tennessee, Arizona, Notre Dame, Colorado State, Cincinnati and Rutgers — had at least three players rush for more yards.

Only 11 teams in FBS had a leading rusher who totaled fewer than 518 yards. None of those teams won a bowl game and only three — Oklahoma State (10-3), Middle Tennessee (7-6) and Central Michigan (7-6) — had a winning record. Collectively, those 11 teams posted a 49-88 record, a dismal .358 win percentage.

Furthermore, an astounding 18 players — including West Virginia’s Wendell Smallwood (1,519 yards), who Missouri will see in the season opener Sept. 3 in Morgantown, W.Va. — racked up more rushing yards than Mizzou.

Advanced metrics, including Football Outsiders’ Rushing S&P+, which attempts to measure the overall effectiveness of a team’s ground game, peg the Tigers as one of the five-worst rushing attacks in FBS last season.

“We’ve got a number of things in our program that we have to emphasize and rushing the football is definitely one of them,” first-year Mizzou coach Barry Odom said. “We’ve got to do a great job as a coaching staff creatively finding way to the run the ball.”

Fortunately, the Tigers bolstered the running back stable substantially during the summer, adding Crockett and two transfers — Alex Ross, a graduate student from Oklahoma, and Nate Strong, a sophomore from Hinds (Miss.) Community College.

“There’s definitely a lot of competition,” Witter said.

Considering the alternative and the state of Missouri’s run game, that’s obviously a good thing.

“I think I’ve got the right guys in the room to get it done,” said running backs coach Cornell Ford, who had coached cornerbacks for the Tigers since 2004. “I feel real good about our scheme and what we’ll do as far as our run game is concerned. … I could care less what the offense did last year. We’re moving on, and we feel like we’ve got a pretty good group of running backs. I guarantee you, there’ll be very productive this year.”

Crockett, in particular, has impressed early in camp.

“He’s got a different gear,” Odom said.

Ford added, “At his size, he’s so strong and he’s got a lot of athleticism. He’s got a lot of burst to him. For a guy that size — honestly, he’s heavier than Ross; he’s a legit 225 (pounds) — so he can run and move. We haven’t had a running back like that around here in a long time.”

Ross brings experience. He totaled 120 carries for 767 yards with five touchdowns during the last two seasons with the Sooners, adding another 1,363 yards and a touchdown as a kickoff returner.

Strong, who committed to the Tigers out of East St. Louis, Ill., but wasn’t academically eligible, only had 15 carries for 102 yards last season in junior college after suffering a cracked humerus bone in his right arm in the second game.

With Witter, the Tigers feel comfortable with the new running back rotation and believe there will be enough carries to go around.

“We all want to … help the program to be successful, win more games and get to a good place,” Strong said. “We want to get to Atlanta. That’s our main goal.”

Anybody who can help Mizzou reach that goal will get carries.

“The number of guys who can handle it and play at a championship level, those guys will find roles,” new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said.

Missouri sophomore quarterback Drew Lock faced more adversity last season that he had in his life to that point, but he learned from the experience and is ready to put those lessons to use in forging ahead with a better 2016 season.

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer