With all the questions surrounding the University of Missouri football team going into spring practice and then the 2016 season, one of the certainties is the Tigers need to get more out of their rushing attack.
The final season under coach Gary Pinkel saw the Tigers’ struggling offense rush for just 1,385 yards, on an average of 3.5 yards per carry, and score only five touchdowns on the ground in 2015.
That’s well off the production of previous seasons.
Missouri racked up 2,490 yards rushing, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, and scored 17 touchdowns on the ground during the 2014 season. Russell Hansbrough (1,084 yards rushing, 10 TDs) and Marcus Murphy (924 yards rushing, four TDs) combined for 2,008 yards.
In 2013, the Tigers rushed for 3,330 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and scored 35 touchdowns rushing powered by the trio of Henry Josey (1,166 yards rushing, 16 TDs), Hansbrough (685 yards, four TDs) and Murphy (601, nine TDs).
Kendial Lawrence rushed for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012 as the Tigers rushed for 1,662 yards and 16 scores. Josey (1,168 yards rushing, nine TDs) and quarterback James Franklin (981 yards rushing, 15 TDs) accounted for a majority of the Tigers’ 3,172 yards rushing and 30 touchdowns in 2011.
The last time Missouri didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher was in 2010 when De’Vion Moore gained a team-high 517 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground but the team ran for 2,033 and 28 TDs.
The challenge for new head coach Barry Odom and new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel will be improving a rushing attack that lost three of its most productive players from last season: Hansbrough (436 yards rushing), Tyler Hunt (185) and quarterback Maty Mauk (145).
The additions of JUCO transfer Natereace Strong and high school signee Damarea Crockett, both bigger backs, could help but they won’t arrive on campus until this summer at the earliest and it’s probably too much to ask either to make an immediate impact.
This spring, Odom and Heupel will have to lean on a relatively unproven group of youngsters to get the job done and make progress.
Junior-to-be Ish Witter, a 5-foot-10, 190-pounder, returns as the Tigers’ leading rusher after gaining 518 yards rushing, averaging 4.1 yards per carry, and scoring one touchdown last season. He also caught 15 passes for 143 yards.
Witter did have some success during his sophomore season, but also looked like a player who wasn’t ready for a larger role. He’ll have to prove this spring that he can carry more of the load because the players behind him have yet to prove anything in Columbia.
Redshirt junior Chase Abbington (6-2, 215), a highly-rated player out of junior college, carried the ball just six times over 10 games during his debut season with Mizzou and gained 40 yards and a touchdown.
Redshirt sophomore Trevon Walters (5-10, 200) missed last season with a knee injury. He has shown some glimpses of his ability during his brief time at Missouri, but hasn’t proven himself at this level.
Neither have redshirt freshman Marquise Doherty (6-1, 205) and Ryan Williams (6-0, 180), who both arrived on campus with strong credentials but weren’t able to contribute right away as freshmen. Doherty’s size gives him an edge over some of his teammates to move up the depth chart, but his reps could be limited this spring because he’s also playing on the baseball team.
So there are plenty of questions about this group, but the Tigers need some players to step up and make bigger contributions this spring and fall.