Most important changes of 2004: #5

InsideMizzou continues its countdown of the 10 most important changes from last season to this year. Coming in at No. 5 is a revamped tailback group, which, despite the loss of the school's all-time rushing leader, might be just as dangerous as it was last year.

Don't expect to be caught asking "Zack Who?" any time this season.

Departed TB Zack Abron finished his Missouri career with five school records, including most touchdowns, rushing yards and rushing attempts. As the featured back in the Missouri offense the past three seasons, Abron racked up an impressive 3,198 career rushing yards and 42 total touchdowns.

Hoping to replace him is a two-headed attack, led by junior Damien Nash but keyed by freshman Marcus Woods. In spite of an inexperienced offensive line, the Tigers can safely assume that junior QB Brad Smith will still be able to run the ball. Making sure Nash and Woods will be able to, too, became a focus of training camp this fall.

"We've got weapons back there," Nash said. "We also have weapons in the pass. We have to be more open. We know we have weapons; we just weren't using them."

One of those weapons is likely Nash himself, who spotted Abron last season and turned heads when he did. He played in all 13 games, including one start, and scored one of the prettiest touchdowns of the season, turning a screen pass into a 48-yard score at Colorado. Nash finished the season strong, averaging 61.6 yards from scrimmage in his last six games, showing that he had completely recovered from knee surgery he had undergone while at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College.

On the first day of practice this fall, Nash said the knee was no longer a concern and that he was ready to prove he could be the Tigers' main rushing threat.

"I know the blocking schemes backward and forward," Nash said. "I'm ready to go…

"It feels good (to be the starter), but you can't take advantage of it. You have to keep working hard."

Nash did exactly that, turning in impressive performances in all three of Missouri's scrimmages. If he hadn't, Woods would have been right there to steal away the starting job.

The diminutive Woods turned heads on the scout team last season, showing an impressive burst of quickness and leaving defenders raving about how difficult it is to bring him down. Many already compare Woods to Kansas State TB Darren Sproles, another undersized back who is one of the leading contenders for the Heisman Trophy this season. That comparison may be based more on body size than talent, but Woods has the skills to make a Heisman pitch down the line.

"I think he's doing a good job," coach Gary Pinkel said. "He has good quickness. There are some blocking issues that maybe you don't see that weren't very good, but he's a good athlete and he's gonna make some plays for us."

Nash's consistency this fall made it difficult for Woods to surpass him, and turning an ankle kept him out of the team's final scrimmage, perhaps his last chance to overcome the junior from St. Louis. Both backs enter the season with an impressive amount of potential, but that is not enough to win football games, Pinkel said.

"The thing you gotta do is, you gotta do it, you know what I'm saying?" Pinkel said. "We can sit here and talk about how (Nash) looks good and everything else, which is fine. He's working hard and everything else. But you gotta go do it. He hasn't done it yet. Until you do it…Brad Smith has done it; we know he can do it. I feel very good about him, but bottom line, you get it done and then you start writing your stories."

Little will be written about these two backs if the new look of the offensive line does not come together, but Nash said early in practice that, to him, the line would not be a concern.

"Spring ball took care of that," he said. "We developed as a unit. That o-line, it filled in pretty good. I think it's gonna hold up."

If it does, the Smith-Nash-Woods combination could become one of the strongest rushing attacks in the Big 12. For now, Woods said he doesn't mind being just half of the equation at tailback.

"Hopefully we can be the one-two punch that can get it done," he said.

Check back tomorrow as our countdown continues with No. 4.

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