COLUMBIA — The Missouri football team's running game is under scrutiny.
In the wake of senior tailback Derrick Washington’s permanent suspension from the team, no one seemed to know how the Tigers’ offense would rebound. Coaches discussed strategy, fans started naming successors — Kendial Lawrence, De’Vion Moore — and hyperbole was rampant.
To some it appeared the running game would never recover and the season was doomed. Others quickly recovered their optimism and saw Henry Josey as the next offensive phenom.
And, in the first three games of Missouri’s Washington-less season, fans had some reason to buy into such desperate views. For every 62-yard touchdown run there was an injury or a lackluster performance to match, and with each mistake, fans wondered what the rushing game could have been.
“When he (Washington) was such a big part of the offense and expectation of our offense this year, that’s something that we’ve had to certainly adjust,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “We certainly have some very capable backups.”
Some of those fears subsided in Missouri's most recent game against Miami-Ohio, when the Tigers' running backs rushed for 204 total yards, the team’s best rushing performance of the season. This total improved Missouri's rushing yards per game from 128.7 to 147.5. What’s most impressive about the performance, though, are not the numbers, but rather the distribution. For the first time this year, Missouri’s top three tailbacks had solid performances.
In Washington’s absence, Pinkel needed a solution. And to get there, he has started an experiment.
At first, Pinkel was unsure of his variables. How many running backs were viable starters? Would his all-star freshmen prove lackluster?
After Washington’s suspension, Lawrence, a sophomore, moved from the No. 2 position on the depth chart into a starting role. Behind him were Moore, a junior, and the freshmen, Josey and Marcus Murphy.
Lawrence started the season opener against Illinois but ran for only 20 yards before injuring his shoulder. With Lawrence hurt, Moore was the standout rusher in the opener. He ran for 78 yards — not exactly a breakout performance — and the rushing game looked weak compared to Illinois' 200 net yards.
Although Pinkel said he was impressed with Moore’s performance, he knew then that the 2010 Missouri rushing game would focus on more than one player. But how many running backs would factor into his plan remained to be determined.
“I felt good about those guys,” Pinkel said. “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.”
The Illinois game also marked the debut of the third member of Pinkel’s rushing trifecta, an added variable in the experiment: Josey. Although he ran for just 10 yards in his first game, Pinkel had been impressed with his play throughout preseason, and he told the young running back before his first game that he would have a shot to prove himself in the team's early games.
Pinkel also stressed that, though three running backs have dominated this year’s running game so far, there’s one other freshman whom he is not overlooking, an outlier in his scheme.
“By the way, Marcus (Murphy) is pretty good too,” Pinkel said.
Experiment at the line of scrimmage
Although Murphy is more than just a speedy afterthought, Pinkel and his offensive coordinator Dave Yost are considering their running game mostly as a three-man rotation, and Pinkel has defined his experiment, his game plan, as a three-man act.
“We rotate them in through series — one, two, three,” Pinkel said. “We rotate them back in, and we try to keep track of how many (times).”
The coaches are fortunate to have such depth at running back. Pinkel said he caught some criticism for recruiting so heavily at the position in recent years, and that the coaches are aware such a rotation would be impossible in other programs. However, after Josey and Murphy showed off their skills in the first few games of the season, Pinkel decided that the depth chart would allow for split playing time.
“We’ve learned a little bit about ourselves, you know, and that capability of a couple of our young players, too,” Pinkel said.
In such a system, it is more difficult for one player to post record-breaking numbers. While this might cause resentment among the three, it hasn’t yet this season.
“We’re all cool with it and everything, and we’re talking to each other about everything a lot,” Josey said.
The running backs all agreed that the rotation also fosters competition — the good kind, according to Pinkel. He said the running backs’ competitive spirit is present all the time, in games and practices, and that the players feed off of each other.
“As far as now, we’re just working day-by-day in practices,” Lawrence said. “We never know who’s going to get that turn, but just knowing our role and playing this game, we’ll all come out prepared.”
Lawrence said he is happy with the approach. For him, the rotation isn’t a slight to his abilities or a constraint to his game. It’s just another system that might help his team win.
“We’re all comfortable,” Lawrence said. “We just wait for our turn, and then when we get the ball, we do what we do.”
In more abstract terms, the rotation is a way to capitalize on various aspects of the players’ talents: Josey’s speed, Moore’s experience, Lawrence’s ball skills. It’s also beneficial on a basic physical level.
“If you keep fresh legs in there, the defense, they’re going to get tired,” Lawrence said. “Just keep fresh legs and keep rolling. It will help us a lot.”
Moore agreed that the rotation is all about efficiency, combining different skills and guarding against tired legs. At a position that relies on speed, fatigue can be deadly.
“You’ve got to go hard, as hard as you can go, when it’s your turn to go in,” Moore said.
Moore added that having three or four players getting action in each game makes it easy to continue the team’s momentum. Instead of wearing out after a long touchdown run, Moore says that a running back can rotate out without the team losing its excitement. Whoever rotates in will want to live up to his predecessor.
“Enthusiasm is contagious,” he said. “You go out, you make big plays, and that sort of sets the tone. Everybody out there is hoping you’ll go out and continue to make good plays.”
The Tigers' game against Miami-Ohio was the first game in which Pinkel’s experimental rotation appeared successful. All four running backs played well, but each had his chance to shine by scoring a touchdown. Lawrence’s score was the first of his career, and seemed like it had been a long time coming.
“It’s been a while,” Lawrence said. “But I was happy that I scored. The offensive line blocked real well. It was wide open and I had no choice but score.”
The Redhawks had claimed the sixth best rushing defense in the country entering the game, but they seemed unable to stop any of the Missouri running backs, who came prepared.
“... what we knew was that this was a team that was stopping the run like real good,” Josey said. “ ... we knew we had to put up some big runs to stop all the talk about how they could stop us from running.
“You know, we took care of business.”
Everything seemed to work in concert. The running backs were rested, the offense was blocking, and holes appeared at perfect moments.
“A lot of people play us different ways, you know, and we were fortunate to get it going, and it was working,” Pinkel said.
No one player’s statistics eclipsed the others'. Moore said he wasn’t surprised by the consistent play all around, and he thinks the system is paying off.
“Every single person in the backfield is capable of going out and making great plays,” Moore said.
With such confidence after its final nonconference game, Pinkel hopes that the team’s running game can continue with such efficiency during conference play. Although the rotation seems to be working, it doesn't have a consistent record of success, and speculation about the running game abounds.
Soon enough, though, Pinkel will be able to say whether his offensive hypothesis is correct.