Running back depth continues to be an issue for Missouri, which will be without sophomore Morgan Steward once again Saturday at Toledo.
Steward suffered a hip injury in practice early in camp. Initially, he didn’t expect it to be a long-term injury, but Steward remains sidelined nearly a month later.
“We’re not sure when he’ll return,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. “Hopefully in a few week, but that’s kind of a week-by-week evaluation as we go.”
Pinkel referred to the injury as a hip strain and said, “They’re working with it. They still think he’s going to get back. It’s just taking a little bit longer than what they anticipated.”
Starting tailback Russell Hansbrough set career-highs in carries (20) and yards (126) during a season-opening 38-18 win against South Dakota State.
However, Steward’s absence has forced Missouri’s staff to alter plans to use senior Marcus Murphy, the co-starter at tailback, more as a receiver in the slot.
Steward’s injury also has hastened freshman Ish Witter’s ascent up the depth chart. He’s listed fourth at the moment and had three carries for 15 yards against the Jackrabbits.
“It was very different from high school,” Witter said. “Playing in front of 60,000 people, it was different. It was crazy, but I loved it.”
Ideally, the Tigers prefer to go with a three-back rotation, which limits wear and tear on the smaller backs recruited to the program.
“The good thing is we’ve got other players that are able to come to the forefront right now,” running backs coach Brian Jones said. “With Russell playing the way he is and Marcus Murphy playing the way he is along with Ish Witter coming up and having a great camp, it’s helped us a great deal.”
Witter narrowly edged fellow freshman Trevon Walters for a spot on the depth chart to open the season with junior Tyler Hunt as Missouri’s fifth running back.
“That was a tough choice, but, with our depth situation, we had to choose one,” Jones said. “You might say we almost flipped a coin, because they are both very talented and have great futures.”
Witter might see more time against Toledo if Hansbrough requires rest or Murphy is utilized more in the slot.
“Whenever they need me, I’m ready to come in and make the plays that I know I can make,” Witter said. “Morgan is hurt. I hope the best for him and hope he can come back as soon as possible, but I’ll come in and try to do what I can whenever I’m needed.”