COLUMBIA — What a difference two weeks makes.
In the days leading up to Missouri’s first game against Illinois, head coach Gary Pinkel faced questions about which of his four backup tailbacks would step into the starting role after Derrick Washington’s permanent suspension. McNeese State, a Football Championship Subdivision team, was an ideal opponent for Missouri to test its depth.
In Saturday’s game, the Tigers' second-, third- and fourth-string tailbacks not only stepped up, they also provided the force behind Missouri’s offense in a 50-6 victory over the Cowboys.
“I felt good about those guys,” Pinkel said in the Big 12 coaches’ conference call on Monday. “I think we’ve got a lot of athleticism there, and we’ll use two or more guys throughout the season, probably in most every game.”
After No. 1 tailback Kendial Lawrence suffered a shoulder pointer injury against Illinois, De’Vion Moore, Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy split time at tailback on Saturday. Murphy saw his first minutes of playing time when he returned McNeese State’s opening kickoff for 25 yards.
Murphy, a freshman whose versatility has appealed to coaches throughout the preseason, can play receiver or tailback, or return kicks.
“He’s just got great speed and quickness back there,” Pinkel said. “We eventually wanted to get him back there, also punts possibly ... prior to our conference schedule.”
“He’s very explosive and has great acceleration. He’s looked really well in practice, so he’ll have an opportunity now,” Pinkel said.
Murphy learned that he’d be returning the kickoff at the team’s meeting on Sunday, and he’s known since before the Illinois game that there was a possibility he'd see time at tailback as well. Once he learned that he’d moved to No. 1 on the depth chart for kick returns, Murphy began to mentally focus on Saturday’s game.
“You just got to try to kick everything out of your mind and just work on catching the ball and making a play,” Murphy said. “It’s the most important thing.”
Murphy also saw playing time at tailback, though his performance on offense didn’t measure up to that of fellow freshman Josey or junior Moore.
Josey, the fastest of the team’s four tailbacks, was the standout offensive player in the first half, when he rushed for 105 yards and three touchdowns. His first two touchdowns came on 6-yard runs, and on his third touchdown, Josey broke through the first line of defenders and ran 62 yards.
“Henry is just a very talented running back,” running backs coach Brian Jones said during preseason camp. “There, you can do a lot of things with him also. He’s got very good vision and runs the ball very well.”
Moore, who Pinkel originally said would probably split time with Lawrence, made his mark later in the half. He scored the fourth touchdown of the game with 11:32 remaining in the second quarter on a 9-yard run. The tailbacks were responsible for all of the offense’s points in the first half.
Before the Illinois game, Pinkel referred to Lawrence and Moore as his “one-two punch.” After Saturday’s game, he might have to change his stance. At tailback, Missouri may have four different punches to throw.