COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Highlighted by Leonard Fournette of LSU and Alabama’s Derrick Henry, the eventual Heisman trophy winner, the Southeastern Conference boasted some of the nation’s top rushing attacks in 2015.
Missouri’s was not one of them.
In the wake of back-to-back division championships, the Tigers’ struggles in 2015 were historic. Tallying 1,385 rushing yards and only five rushing touchdowns, Missouri finished the season ranked 127th out of 128 Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring — the worst finish in school history.
The offense was riddled with setbacks seemingly every week. From nagging injuries on the line to running back Russell Hansbrough’s ankle sprain in the season opener to the suspension and eventual dismissal of quarterback Maty Mauk, the Tigers never found a rhythm to their season.
A 1,000-yard back in 2014, Hansbrough’s injury gave way to Ish Witter as the Tigers’ primary ball carrier. He rushed 126 times for 518 yards and a touchdown in 2015.
Witter said the team wouldn’t simply forget about what happened in 2015, but it won’t dwell on it, either.
“It’s in the past,” said Witter, a junior from Tampa, Florida. “We can’t look back. We’ve got to worry about what’s going on in the future. It’s definitely going to change this season, I think, so I’m looking forward to it.”
“We’ve got to do a great job as a coaching staff creatively finding ways to run the ball,” said first-year coach Barry Odom said. “It’s all 11 of them, and us together as a staff, putting together a plan schematically of what our kids can do. If you’re able to run the ball, that opens up some other things for you.”
One of the newest additions to Missouri’s coaching staff, offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, will be tasked with guiding the run game back on track.
“(Running back) is one of the positions that maybe I’m most excited about,” said Heupel, who served as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma from 2011-2014. “Just seeing the competition unfold. Ultimately, we’re going to need a few of those guys to be able to pound the ball to be successful and chase a championship.”
Missouri added three new running backs to its roster during the offseason, including graduate transfer Alex Ross from Oklahoma.
“I feel like we’ll be able to run the ball effectively,” said Ross, who rushed 123 times for 786 yards and five touchdowns in three seasons as a Sooner. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can run, the offensive line is looking good, but the defense is what really helps us. It’s good looks all the time.”
Heupel used words like fast, strong, explosive and mature to describe Ross, who also returned 53 kicks for 1,363 yards and two touchdowns at Oklahoma.
“He has the ability to take it the distance when he’s got some open grass,” Heupel said. “He’s played at a high level. He’s played a lot of football, so I think it’s a welcome addition to our backfield.”
Freshman Demarea Crockett and junior college transfer Nate Strong add depth to the backfield, which already has the look of a “rush by committee” attack.
“Those were answers that we were trying to get fixed as we finished spring practice,” Odom said. “We’ve got to get them ready to play, but those are two guys that could help us early on.”
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