COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri’s veteran tailbacks could be just the leaders the Tigers need to carry an offense looking to fill quite a few big shoes.
The Tigers’ 1,000-yard rusher, Henry Josey, is gone after an inspiring senior season, but junior Russell Hansbrough and senior Marcus Murphy clearly aren’t lacking in ability or experience. Both running backs rushed for more than 600 yards and combined for 13 touchdowns during Mizzou’s improbable 2013 campaign.
"We have to come out every day and prove we can just stay healthy," said Murphy, who added a receiving touchdown to go along with his nine scores on the ground. "We have to stay fresh on our feet. One guy may get tired, we have to have the other guy be able to step up and come in and don’t lose a step."
Coach Gary Pinkel knows that could be especially true in the Tigers’ Aug. 30 home opener against South Dakota State, which is scheduled for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff. Thursday morning’s hot scrimmage provided a preview of sorts, and it’s safe to say the running backs held up well.
Hansbrough’s 55-yard touchdown run was the highlight of the day, though it might have happened because the second-string defense was momentarily stunned to see quarterback Maty Mauk actually under center. Few defenders even had a chance to make the tackle thanks to the work of the offensive line, which Murphy said has been dominant throughout fall camp.
Expect Hansbrough to become the primary option in the running game and eclipse last year’s total of 114 carries, which came with a respectable average of six yards per carry but only four touchdowns. Murphy said the junior looks ready to become the Tigers’ fourth different No. 1 option in the last five years.
"He’s improved a lot since last year, his run reads and even his leadership," Murphy said. "The experience helped him a lot, so he can carry the load. And with the other backs helping him out and me playing receiver and running back, I think we’ll be good with the rotation."
Lookin’ good! CLICK HERE to check out our gallery of cheerleaders from around the SEC.
Coaches want to get the ball to Murphy in space any way they can, and the elusive preseason first-team All-American punt returner has shown he can line up out wide on either side of the ball or in the backfield. Mauk said sophomore Morgan Steward should also add some valuable depth when he returns from a hip injury, and freshman Ish Witter turned some heads when he broke free for a 31-yard run late in Thursday’s scrimmage.
Pinkel spoke mostly in generalities during a brief postgame interview, which included high praise for a talented freshman class. He said they’re beginning to understand the importance of consistent effort in order to improve as a team every day.
"We did a lot of good things," Pinkel said. "But we don’t want to just be good; we want to be better than good."
Inconsistency again plagued the passing game, where Hansbrough was also involved in the lowlight of the scrimmage. He was the target of an errant backward dump-off by Mauk, which was scooped up by linebacker Eric Beisel for a touchdown and led Pinkel to rightly ask, "What the hell was that?"
Some miscommunications and bad breaks by receivers resulted in several throws that might not have even landed on the same screen as their intended targets had the scrimmage been televised. But Mauk insisted he’s not worried about his low completion percentage — he had solid production last year despite connecting on just 51 percent of 133 passes — and said the offense will remain balanced.
"We’re going to go out there, there’s going to be different things that we’ve got to do," Mauk said. "If I’ve got to run, I’ve got to throw, if we’re going to run the ball with the backs, whatever we’ve got to do we’re going to do it."
It’s quite possible all of that will work against the Jackrabbits of SDSU, an offensive-minded FCS team that ranked 58th in the country with 382.1 yards per game in 2013. But for the SEC opener at South Carolina or even a tricky road test at Toledo, Mizzou’s running game appears to be closest to game-ready.
You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter @FS_LukeT or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.