Campus Corner

Missouri camp preview: running backs

Alex Ross (28) broke a tackle while playing for Oklahoma against Texas.
Alex Ross (28) broke a tackle while playing for Oklahoma against Texas. The Associated Press

Missouri’s offense had myriad issues last season.

The offensive line wasn’t as dominant as the previous two seasons that netted SEC Championship Game appearances.

The wide receivers struggled to get open.

Maty Mauk’s repeated suspensions left a true freshman at starting quarterback.

The Tigers’ running game also was woeful.

Some of that obviously has to do with the other issues on offense, particularly the offensive line, but it’s clear that Mizzou needed to upgrade at running back.

Last season, the Tigers ranked 120th among 128 teams, averaging 115.4 yards per game on the ground.

The team’s five rushing touchdowns were the second-fewest in the Football Bowl Subdivision, ahead of only Central Florida (four).

Missouri’s 3.49-yard average per carry was 118th in the nation, ahead of only Florida (3.48), Kansas (3.04) and Wake Forest (3.03) among Power Five programs.

The good news is that the Tigers have bolstered the backfield stable.

Here’s a look at the running back breakdown for Missouri ahead of fall camp, which opens Thursday, in The Star’s continuing camp preview series:

RUNNING BACKS

Returning starters: Ish Witter, junior.

Other returning contributors: Shaun Conway, sophomore; Trevon Walters, sophomore.

Newcomers: Damarea Crockett, freshman; Alex Ross, senior; Nate Strong, sophomore; Ryan Williams, redshirt freshman.

Projected 2016 starter: Ross

Outlook: Witter was Missouri’s surprise leading rusher last season, albeit with 126 carries for only 518 yards. He also had a touchdown, one of three by Tigers running backs. Russell Hansbrough and Tyler Hunt had the others, while quarterbacks Maty Mauk and Drew Lock each accounted for one . Witter also had 143 receiving yards and was the Tigers’ leader with 661 yards from scrimmage last season.

Morgan Steward’s forced retirement — he was never able to recover fully from a hip injury suffered in 2014 fall camp — and Chase Abbington’s transfer to Southeast Missouri last spring further depleted Mizzou’s depth at the position. Marquise Doherty’s decision to transfer and focus on a baseball career also hurt, but depth may no longer be an issue after a productive recruiting season.

The Tigers added Oklahoma transfer Alex Ross, who rushed for 786 yards with five touchdowns in 123 carries in three seasons with the Sooners. He also returned three kickoffs for touchdowns during the last two years and could be the starter Sept. 3 at West Virginia. Ross is a 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior from Jenks, Okla., and fills a need for a bigger running back as first-year coach Barry Odom is expected to emphasize more of a power run game between the tackles in 2016.

Missouri also brought in freshman Damarea Crockett — a 5-foot-11, 210-pound freshman from Little Rock, Ark. — to provide another bigger back along with East St. Louis graduate and Hinds (Miss.) Community College transfer Nate Strong. Strong originally committed to the Tigers out of high school and had some coursework to finish up this summer for his associate’s degree, but he’s another bigger back — 6-foot, 210 pounds — who figures to work into the rotation if he’s recovered from a broken arm. Strong only appeared in two games for Hinds last season, recording 15 carries for 102 yards.

Witter probably won’t disappear from the Mizzou game plan, giving the team what appears to be a reliable stable of four running backs. Sophomore Trevon Walters hasn’t played for the Tigers after suffering an ACL tear and aggravating the injury in a car wreck last season, but he provides depth along with redshirt freshman Ryan Williams from Lee’s Summit and sophomore walk-on Shaun Conway.

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer

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