Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — It has been a while since the Missouri football team had to worry about the tailback position.
The Tigers have had a 1,000-yard rusher every season since 2010, and at least two tailbacks rushed for 500 or more yards in every season but one during that stretch.
Missouri won’t have that luxury Saturday against Connecticut (11 a.m., ESPN-TV).
With starter Russell Hansbrough — who had 1,084 yards himself last year — ruled out with a sprained ankle, Missouri’s tailbacks share a mere 321 career rushing yards. Sophomore Ish Witter will get his first career start in Hansbrough’s place. Witter has 83 yards this year on 25 carries.
And inexperience isn’t the only issue plaguing Missouri’s backfield. Witter was banged up last week against Arkansas State, though coach Gary Pinkel said he is now at 100 percent, and backups Tyler Hunt and Morgan Steward each have injury problems of their own. Hunt is dealing with hamstring and groin injuries, Pinkel said Monday, and Steward has been recovering from a hip injury for more than a year.
“It’s just unfortunate we’ve had so much problems at the position,” Pinkel said. “It’s going to happen, and you’ve got to find out answers and overcome it. And other players have got to step it up a little bit.”
Witter said he felt dazed during Missouri’s game Saturday at Arkansas State. He sat out Missouri’s final drive.
“He didn’t have any headaches at all, which is really good,” Pinkel said. “He went through a workout, and our medical staff makes those decisions. They do a great job, are very, very cautious of (head injuries).”
Witter said he was good to go.
“After a game, of course you’re going to be dinged-up,” he said. “You play the game of football. If you’re not walking out of a game bruised-up, you didn’t give it your all. So everybody, you’ve got your bumps and bruises, but we’ll come back strong.”
Witter set a career high against the Red Wolves with 50 rushing yards, 27 of which came on one third-quarter carry. Pinkel believes Witter, who had 27 carries last year as a true freshman, has plenty of room to grow.
“I think it’s a little bit of just kind of learning how it works, to take your creases when you get it, don’t try to make too much out of it,” Pinkel said. Running backs coach “Brian Jones does a real good job of that. And I think he’ll get better and better, just like (former Missouri tailbacks Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy) did. They were a lot better their senior year than they were their first couple years.”
The Tigers wouldn’t mind if that improvement came sooner rather than later. Missouri’s backup tailbacks have averaged just 2.76 yards per carry in two games.
Without Hansbrough, who Pinkel said was poised to have his best year yet, the Tigers will likely be forced to explore other running options, namely quarterback Maty Mauk.
“We’re going to have to run him a little bit more. I think that’s obvious,” Pinkel said. “We’re going to have to do that, and that’s something that he’s good at. He’s got to be very smart how he runs, too. … If it’s third-and-1, it’s a little bit different, and fourth-and-1, but he’s pretty smart how he handles those things. But we’re going to have to do that a little bit because we have to take advantage of his athleticism.”
Mauk ran for 75 yards Saturday at Arkansas State, tied for his second-highest total at Missouri. He has been prone to using his feet to try to open up the passing game, but he’s happy to have an opportunity to run on designed plays as well.
“When you know you’ve got the blocking involved and you’ve just got to find that cut and go upfield, it’s definitely a lot better than just scrambling around and taking more unnecessary hits,” Mauk said. “… Because I feel a lot of people kind of underestimate my legs. I feel like I’m just as fast as anybody out there on the field.”
How long Missouri will be without Hansbrough is uncertain. Pinkel said the senior tailback did not further injure his ankle by playing Saturday but that it is simply not healed.
In the meantime, the Tigers are struggling to prepare multiple inexperienced backs at once. Junior-college transfer Chase Abbington was expected to contribute to the running game this season but did not play in Missouri’s comeback win Saturday, even with Witter and Hansbrough out. That was by choice, Pinkel said.
“I’m not going to put a guy in a pressure-packed situation that hasn’t played very much,” Pinkel said. “That was not going to happen. It’s something that comes from me and the decisions that I make (about) the guy carrying the football and such, but we want to get him more involved, and we will do that.”
Pinkel said there’s a limit to how many tailbacks a team can prepare for an upcoming game.
“You can’t get seven running backs ready to play. It can’t happen,” he said. “… Three is what you really work to get ready, and a fourth player in the hunt if you need that.”