COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Missouri is bringing some unconventional offensive looks to the SEC, but there is one part of the Tigers’ offense that coach Gary Pinkel is sure will fit right in -- there's plenty to work with in his running game.
“The depth at that position is always critical,” Pinkel said. “That means you probably need four guys ready to go (in a game).”
If you can’t run the ball in the SEC you won’t get very far. Last season, six SEC teams -- LSU, Alabama, South Carolina Auburn, Mississippi State and Georgia -- ranked in the top 40 nationally in rushing. But none ranked higher than Missouri, which was 11th, averaging 244 yards per game.
As Missouri gets ready for the offseason, it does so with a lot of confidence in its running game yet again.
Missouri will likely be without last year’s leading rusher in Henry Josey, who suffered a devastating knee injury against Texas last year but was still second in the Big 12 in rushing. However, it’s not like Missouri will have a stranger taking over.
Before anyone had even really heard of Josey, Kendial Lawrence was Missouri’s starting running back. He broke his fibula during the second practice week of the season and missed three games, paving the way for Josey. Lawrence then returned against Texas, rushing for 106 yards and a touchdown. He went on to average 93 yards in the last four games of the season – all wins – and score three touchdowns.
“There’s no question Kendial Lawrence can be our lead back and we can win games with him,” offensive coordinator David Yost said.
For the 5-foot-9, 195-pound Lawrence, this spring was about slowing down what he saw in order to speed his game up on the field. Even when Lawrence was the undisputed starter, he admits he rushed a lot of what he did and wasn’t patient, which stunted his development.
This spring, Lawrence changed his approach. He studied film more to find better holes on tape. Once Lawrence could focus and trust in his line, he was able to make bigger and better plays because he could play both outside and in between the tackles.
“I just hit it when I get it,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence won’t be alone. Big-bodied rising senior Jared McGriff-Culver, who rushed for 111 yards last season is back and will be used as both a running back, a blocking back and an H-back. Redshirt sophomore Greg White improved a lot this spring and redshirt sophomore Marcus Murphy returned after missing the 2011 season with a shoulder injury.
Murphy made a few big plays in practice this spring and is in line to get a good amount of carries this fall.
Yost also said he can throw receivers into the backfield for direct snaps, use the read option and jet sweeps in his run attack.
“We can also put those wrinkles in and try to give people different looks and try to stretch people in different ways because we’re not just going to line up with a tight end and two backs in the backfield and say, ‘Hey, see if you can stop us running the power,’” Yost said. “That’s not what we do and it’s not what we’re going to hang our hat on.”
What Missouri can hang its hat on is the fact its quarterback can run too. James Franklin was second on the team in rushing, and sixth in the Big 12 last season with 981 yards and 15 touchdowns.
While Franklin would like to be more of a pass-first player this fall, his coaches understand they’ll need his feet just as much this fall.
“It’s easy to fall in love with running the quarterback because that’s the guy a lot of defenses have the hardest time defending,” Yost said.
That’s because a running quarterback opens things up the passing game and takes defensive attention away from running backs.
Lawrence respects Franklin’s ability, but he wants the running backs to be the reason SEC defenses have a hard time stopping Mizzou. Franklin can do a lot, Lawrence said, but a group of running backs can help to pound opposing defenses and create more balance.
“It’s real important because you don’t want to be one dimensional,” he said said. “You want to give the defense different looks every time in running and passing and different situations that will put them in a bind.”