COLUMBIA, Mo. – One running back is trying to rebuild a career, and the other is trying to revive his own. One waits for that perfect moment to burst through a hole on the practice field, and the other remembers when he did the same when healthy. One will start when Missouri begins a landmark season Sept. 1 against Southeastern Louisiana, and the other will support him without a promise of playing this fall.
One running back, senior Kendial Lawrence, holds the top spot on Missouri’s depth chart. The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Rockwall, Texas, native won the starting job after fall camp last season. Then he cracked his left fibula in a practice in early September preparing for Arizona State, forcing him to miss three games and accept a secondary role upon his return.
The other, junior Henry Josey, became a sensation in Lawrence’s place. The 5-10, 190-pound Angleton, Texas, native rushed for 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns before sustaining a season-ending left knee injury last November against Texas. Lawrence became the primary rusher again with Josey gone, earning 371 yards and three touchdowns in the last four games.
“I had a pretty interesting past, coming in and playing as a true freshman and then winning the starting spot (last season), getting hurt and losing it,” Lawrence says. “It prepares me to work as hard as I can and try to work the hardest of everyone out here to prove myself.”
“We both watched each other,” says Josey, an all-Big 12 first-team selection last season who’s doubtful to return this year while recovering from a torn ACL, MCL and patellar tendon. “Last year when I went down, he said he was watching me. I’ll do the same thing. It’s just picking each other back up. We use it to an advantage.”
The approach could benefit both players in the Tigers’ first Southeastern Conference season. Yes, Lawrence and Josey are competitors, both driven talents who have pushed each other for starting time throughout their careers.
But their respective paths have taught them lessons of resilience and recovery. They know outlooks can change with an ill-timed break or an unfortunate twist. Through adversity, the two rushers have formed a valued bond.
“I’m going to be there to tell him anything I can,” Josey says. “He knows what he’s doing.”
It’s a recent Friday morning, and Lawrence is standing on a practice field talking about resilience. The fibula injury changed his approach in ways that might surprise you.
Looking back, Lawrence says his body was fragile entering the 2011 season. He says he failed to work hard enough to prepare himself physically for the fall grind. Now, he considers an opportunity to lead Missouri’s rushing attack a second chance.
“Coming out this summer,” says Lawrence, who has 1,207 rushing yards in three seasons, “I made sure I did all the extra stretching and the extra massages and treatment and all the extra lifting I could do to prepare my body for the SEC.”
The extra work is a sign of Lawrence’s urgency. Losing his starting spot was a flash point of sorts. But as he watched Josey’s profile rise, he kept a lesson in mind that he learned earlier in coach Gary Pinkel’s program: Park your problem and refocus.
Lawrence focused on his new role – one that required him to watch his former backup become a star – but there was never a question of whether he would remain close with Josey. Lawrence calls the Doak Walker Award semifinalist his “little brother.” They have fished together. They have driven through Texas together. They have shared rooms together before games.
Last fall, some around Lawrence noticed his body language sag at times when adjusting to his post-injury life. Eventually, though, the player parked his problem and committed to the future.
“We’re always pushing each other and wanting the best for each other,” Lawrence says of Josey. “We always make each other work hard.”
For Lawrence, that relationship continued after Josey’s injury. During the Texas game, shortly after Josey gripped his knee in sharp pain on a sideline in the third quarter at Memorial Stadium, Lawrence walked over to his “little brother” and said, “We’ve got this game for you, so just keep your head up.”
Lawrence finished the afternoon with a game-high 106 yards with one touchdown on 18 carries. The Tigers beat the Longhorns for the first time since 1997.
“There comes a point,” Lawrence says, “where you have to … work your way back up from where you were.”
It’s the recent morning, and Josey is standing on a practice field talking about recovery. The knee injury changed his approach in ways that make him value his connection with Lawrence more.
Some have pointed to Josey’s absence as a reason why the Tigers could struggle in their first SEC year. His rushing total ranked fifth-best in program history last season, and his average of 116.8 yards per game stood as the country’s 12th-best in the category.
That production is a significant loss. Still, Josey trusts Lawrence to produce. He has seen his older teammate carry himself with determination throughout preseason camp, as if he’s refreshed.
“We’ve got to be friends,” says Josey, who has 1,605 rushing yards in two seasons. “This is a game that we both love, and we both want to be starters. Through it all, we didn’t ever talk down to each other. I would just say, ‘We’re all the same talent.’ Someday, he might have a good day. Someday, I might have a good day. Either way it works out, we’re both going to be on the field, and we’re both going to help our team out.”
Last fall, Josey’s help continued after Lawrence regained the top rushing job. There were times late in the season when Lawrence approached Josey after a play and say, “Hey, what did you see?”
“Slow down,” Lawrence recalls Josey telling him. “Be patient, and make your right run reads.”
“This is his year,” Josey says of Lawrence now. “It’s in his mind that he has to do what he has to do this year. He just seems really positive this year.”
Shared respect makes such a comment possible. That’s how Josey and Lawrence have managed to preserve their friendship despite the competition between them. Lawrence studied Josey during a fight to return to the field, and Josey plans to do the same when watching Lawrence this season.
The cycle has strengthened both players. Through everything, their shared journeys have allowed each to grow.
“I see him as a brother,” Josey says of Lawrence. “We have a close relationship on and off the field.”
Pinkel is asked on the recent morning about how Lawrence will replace Josey this fall. The coach is quick to point out that Lawrence has lived a similar situation before.
“I don’t know if he’s really filling in for him, because he was playing a lot before Henry was here,” Pinkel says. “They are very similar. They’ve got great speed and explosiveness. They turn the corner well. … He understands that we need an impact player there, and he is an impact player. I think, right now, he’s having as good a camp as he has ever had since he’s been here.”
Others around Lawrence have noticed that effort too. Like Josey, they have seen him play with greater intensity.
“He has that kind of edge on him, because he went down last year and lost a starting spot,” junior wide receiver Marcus Lucas says. “He just wants to come back and prove that he was that guy before Henry (took over). He wants to be able to fulfill that role that we’re going to be missing.”
Lawrence has that ambition, but he never imagined his career unfolding this way. He was a former favorite who adjusted to changes on the depth chart after an inspired upstart burst on the scene. Now, he understands where resilience can lead.
Meanwhile, Josey continues his recovery. He will watch Lawrence against SEC defenses and learn from his friend’s gains and errors, wishing he were on the field during this historic year. Each lesson will prepare him for that moment when he returns.
“We’ve picked each other up the whole time since I’ve got here,” Josey says. “He’s gotten hurt before me, and I picked him up. I’ve gotten hurt, and he’s picked me up. It’s like it switched back again.”
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.