Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Saturday’s game against South Dakota State was Russell Hansbrough’s first start as a Missouri Tiger, so it’s no big surprise his 20 carries surpassed any one-game workload from his first two years at Missouri.
A little more surprising: He never even had that many carries in high school.
“That’s the first thing he said after the game,” fellow tailback Marcus Murphy said. “It just shows that we’ve got a lot of responsibility as the running backs. We’ve got to keep coming out every week and contributing as a running back group.”
After biding his time behind 1,000-yard rushers Kendial Lawrence and Henry Josey, Hansbrough has a chance to shoulder the load on the ground his junior season.
Though Hansbrough shares the starting tailback spot with Murphy on the depth chart, Hansbrough had a 20-9 edge in carries Saturday and Murphy could see more time at receiver once backup tailback Morgan Steward returns from a lingering hip injury.
Hansbrough took advantage of his increased role, running for a career-best 126 yards and a highlight-reel 10-yard touchdown in the first quarter that should have resulted in a tackle for loss.
“I knew I was going to be able to make some big plays and just making sure I had my confidence throughout the game to play the way I thought I could,” he said.
Hansbrough, a junior, was a three-star recruit out of Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas. He averaged 10 carries per game during his senior season, but the 5-foot-9 tailback made the most of his opportunities, totaling 9.5 yards per carry en route to a 1,238-yard year.
Hansbrough ran for 824 yards his first two years at Missouri, most of which came in 2013 when he averaged nearly 50 yards per game and ran for four touchdowns.
Though Hansbrough had performed well in his third preseason, he was not expecting to hear his name called so frequently in the season opener.
“I didn’t think I was going to get 20 carries at all Saturday,” Hansbrough said. “That was kind of shocking to me, because I’ve never really got that many carries.”
Coach Gary Pinkel said the final tally sounded about right. Hansbrough said he’d love 20 carries each game, but he expects the number to drop once Missouri’s passing game works out the kinks.
For Murphy, it was less about the carries and more what Hansbrough did with them. It was the third 100-yard rushing game of Hansbrough’s career.
“That was good for him, and I’m glad he could get the good yardage,” Murphy said. “You know, he had the crazy touchdown. He just showed some crazy moves. It’s always exciting just to see another guy in the running back group make plays.”
Pinkel said the playmaking ability Hansbrough displayed against South Dakota State was no surprise.
“We’ve just seen a glimpse of what he’s capable of,” Pinkel said. “He’s very, very explosive. He’s a quick-start guy like Henry Josey, where in 10 yards he can go fast really quickly. He’s getting better and better.”
The 6-foot, 210-pound Steward’s return could eventually mean less carries for Hansbrough in short yardage scenarios, and development between quarterback Maty Mauk and his inexperienced receiving corps could lead to a more pass-heavy approach for the Tigers.
Even so, Hansbrough will have plenty of responsibilities.
“Just stepping up and being a leader for one thing,” he said. “I have taken on a role of being a leader and talking to the younger guys, making sure they know the plays and things like that.”
And besides, it’s not like the run game is going anywhere.
“You don’t have to throw the ball all the time, which we want to,” Mauk said, “but when you have the running backs like we have, you’ve got to use that.”