Missouri has made hay with a succession of smaller running backs in recent seasons, but that might change for 2015.
The Tigers still have some of the smaller, shifty backs on the roster.
It starts with senior Russell Hansbrough, who led Missouri in rushing last year with 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns in 205 carries.
He is the first returning 1,000-yard rusher the Tigers have had available since Derrick Washington in 2009, providing coach Gary Pinkel and offensive coordinator Josh Henson something of a security blanket.
Hansbrough has had a few durability issues during his time at Missouri, so depth behind the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Arlington, Texas, native is critical.
He has battled shoulder injuries and other ailments the last few seasons and isn’t built for a 20-carry workload game after game in the Southeastern Conference.
Sophomore Ish Witter (5-9, 190) also has an extra year in the weight room and a season of experience under his belt.
Now, the Tigers also are expected to lean on a pair of bigger backs — junior college transfer Chase Abbington and Morgan Steward, if healthy — behind Hansbrough.
“We’ve not always gone after small backs,” MU running backs Brian Jones said. “Every year, we want as big a back as we could get. Now, over the years, whomever chooses to go somewhere else and then Henry Josey’s our next guy or Marcus Murphy’s our next guy or Russell Hansbrough’s our next guy.”
Steward enjoyed a breakout spring in 2014, but he suffered a hip injury that eventually required surgery and wasn’t a factor last season.
He has resumed running, and Missouri hopes Steward will be cleared for the 2015 season and can pick up where he left off two springs ago.
“We’d like to get Morgan back as fast as we can, because I really thought, going into last season, that he was going to play quite a bit of football for us,” Henson said. “Obviously, it’s unfortunate the injury kept him out through the year, but we’d just like to get him back out there and get him healthy. He’s a great person. He’s great for our team. He is a super hard worker.”
He also is a bigger back at 6-0, 210 pounds.
Abbington (6-2, 215), who wound up detouring through Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College after committing to the Tigers out of Fort Zumwalt South High in St. Louis, is even more of a battering ram.
“He’s going to bring a different dynamic to (the backfield),” Henson said. “There’s obviously some situations when you’re in short-yardage or goal line. … When you do get a guy that’s really good at getting downhill and he’s a little bit bigger and he can run through some tackles, it makes you want to do that a little more in those situations.”
Don’t expect wholesale changes, but it’s always nice to have options on offense.
Abbington, a four-star recruit and the No. 30 running backs in the 2013 class, ran for 832 yards in 11 games for the Dragons as a freshman and took a redshirt last season.
Incoming freshman Marquise Doherty (6-1, 205), a Winnetonka graduate who also played safety in high school and is a baseball standout, could provide another of those bigger weapons in the backfield for 2015.
MISSOURI ROSTER: RUNNING BACKS
Returning players: Trevon Walters (5-10, 200, FR.), Miles Drummond (5-11, 215, JR.), Ish Witter (5-10, 190, so.), Russell Hansbrough (5-9, 195, SR.), Tyler Hunt (5-11, 210, SR.), Morgan Steward (6-0, 210, JR.), Andrew Stevens (5-9, 195, JR.), Steven Blakley (5-11, 225, SO.)
Incoming players: Ryan Williams (6-0, 180, FR.), Marquise Doherty (6-1, 205, FR.), Chase Abbington (6-2, 215, JR.)
Projected starter: Hansbrough
Analysis: Hansbrough is proven commodity and poised for a big season. He is a home-run threat every time he gets the ball in his hands and, when healthy, a solid running back to build the offense around. His 1,084 yards last season were 10th most in a single season in MU history.
Expect Hansbrough to be spelled by Abbington, a transfer from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, who possesses size and speed. He could be a revelation for the Tigers in 2015.
The same might be true of Steward, a Staley High graduate, who is returning from a hip injury that sidelined him for the entire 2014 campaign. Witter and Hunt, a special-teams standout, provide depth and Doherty might as well if he doesn’t take a redshirt season.
Walters also is a bit bigger than Missouri’s normal running backs, but he’s recovering from a torn ACL, so it’s unclear yet how much he’ll be able to contribute, if any, this season.