Campus Corner

Mizzou’s running back depth among readers’ questions as football camp opens

Mizzou's Kendall Blanton healed up, ready for star turn

University of Missouri junior tight end Kendall Blanton declared himself healthy after missing spring practice due to ankle surgery. He's ready to step up his game and possibly emerged as a star for the Tigers in 2017. Aug. 3, 2017
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University of Missouri junior tight end Kendall Blanton declared himself healthy after missing spring practice due to ankle surgery. He's ready to step up his game and possibly emerged as a star for the Tigers in 2017. Aug. 3, 2017

During the season’s first six games last season, then-junior running back Ish Witter led the Tigers with 83 of 229 carries, a 36.2 use percentage, while Crockett received 54 carries — or 23.6 percent.

That changed in late October.

Starting with the Middle Tennessee game, Crockett took on a featured role and, during the next five games before he was suspended for the season finale, handled 99 of MU’s 241 rushing attempts (41.1 percent).

Witter’s role decreased, but perhaps not as dramatically as assumed.

He still received 74 carries during that span, which equates to 30.7 of the Tigers’ total rushes.

Witter actually finished with more carries (162) than Crockett (153) last season.

That was partly because Crockett was suspended for the Arkansas game, but it’s also a reflection of the staff’s faith in Witter.

Crockett’s midseason emergence diminished Witter’s role a bit last season, but he remained a central cog in Mizzou’s running game.

Will the carries continue to be divided similarly to the end of last season?

“We go week by week here and I tell both of those guys they’re both starters,” Mizzou running backs coach Cornell Ford said. “I expect whichever guy we put out there to get the job done.”

But, yes, Crockett has earned a workhorse role.

Coach Barry Odom said as much throughout the summer and Ford acknowledged it, too.

“Crockett certainly has earned the right to get as many reps as he’ll get,” Ford said. “Obviously, we know where he stands from where he came in at, but he’s still got a long way to go and Ish has got to be there as well.”

Ford also stressed that the Tigers need more than two running backs to flourish in the SEC, so he’s pleased the team’s improved depth at the position.

That includes walk-on Dawson Downing from Bishop Miege, who Ford said would be the No. 3 running back if MU had to play a game this weekend.

“He’s done a great job and been pretty steady,” Ford said. “He’s probably been the most consistent in the group from spring to now, but we’ve only been here for three days. As I told them, every day we’re evaluating them.”

Ford said junior Nate Strong has been improving, freshman Isaiah Miller “is coming along” and freshman Larry Rountree III “is going to be a nice addition and everybody will like what they see out of him.”

Now, onto your questions:

Missouri actually ran the ball more times (500) than it passed last season (448), so I wouldn’t expect offensive coordinator Heupel to run the ball more. The Tigers’ offensive line excelled at pass-blocking last season, which was a product of the up-tempo style to a degree. Quarterback Drew Lock consistently got the ball out quickly, limiting the amount of time the line had to sustain its blocks.

With sophomore running back Damarea Crockett’s emergence, Mizzou surely feels more comfortable about the state of its running game entering 2017 than it did 2016, but I don’t see a dramatic shift toward a punishing ground game. If anything, the production the Tigers left on the field last season was in the passing attack. There’s room for growth there, especially with Lock more comfortable in Heupel’s system.

Question one: Missouri is crossing t’s and dotting i’s on finance and budgeting issues for the proposed new football facility in the south end zone at Memorial Stadium, but design work continues behind the scenes with Populous. The plan remains to gain final approval before the end of summer, but regardless the project is on track for a 2019 opening.

Question two: As discussed earlier in this post, Crockett and Witter will share the bulk of the carries. Downing and Strong are next in line for now, but the two new freshmen —Miller, who was an early enrollee and played well during spring practice, and Rountree— still have time to impress Mizzou’s offensive staff and move up the depth chart.

Question three: Redshirt freshman Tre Williams is a beast. He’s absolutely going to be a rotational player, and potential dominant force, in 2017 for D-Line Zou. Will he unseat senior Marcell Frazier, who he’s currently listed behind on the depth chart? Not if Frazier plays like he did during the last three games last season, but Williams could make a run at the other defensive end spot currently occupied by Jordan Harold and backup Franklin Agbasimere. Don’t count out contributions from freshman Chris Turner and junior college transfer Nate Anderson either.

The official answer is “We’ll be very multiple,” and that’s not a lie. Obviously, second-year coach Barry Odom won’t rigidly lock the Tigers into just one scheme or style, because didn’t opponents present different challenges and require difference coverages and sub-packages.

That said, Mizzou’s base defense technically will remain a 4-3, but practically will operate like something of a 4-2-5. Camp — at least the parts the media’s been permitted to see — has featured four-man fronts, but the shift to a jack-of-all-trade, coverage-focused strong-side linebacker might be even dramatic.

The defense has trended the way the last few years under Odom, but with Kansas State transfer Kaleb Prewett getting the bulk of the one reps at that position, it’s clear that the Tigers’ preference is to sacrifice traditional linebacker for speed and athleticism in the middle of the field.

Nothing’s changed. He’s committed to Missouri and will either arrive for the fall semester or next fall.

I wouldn’t say it’ll never happen. Both the current KMBZ affiliates (980 AM for basketball and 98.1 FM for football) and KCSP (610 AM), which no longer will carry Kansas football and basketball, are owned by Entercom. If 610 wants to add Mizzou to its airwaves, I doubt Mizzou would complain, but Learfield Sports, which handles MU’s media rights, is favoring consistency for now.

Besides, the same issues that bothered the Jayhawks, having games preempted by the station’s Royals coverage, wouldn’t change for the Tigers. Anywhere from four to eight Mizzou games could be impacted by Royals coverage, which would make it hard for listeners to find.

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer

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