COLUMBIA — The “committee” of Missouri running backs just isn’t doing it for Kendial Lawrence anymore.
Last season the running back was one of six Tigers who ran for at least 100 yards. The team tallied 2,033 yards on the ground, with Lawrence contributing 422, the third most behind De’Vion Moore and Henry Josey.
The scrimmage did not start well for James Franklin and the first team offense. The first pass of the game, intended for T.J. Moe, was intercepted and returned 10 yards for a touchdown by linebacker Will Ebner.
“The play of our quarterback position was not where it should have been,” offensive coordinator Dave Yost said. “It was an up-and-down inconsistency type of thing, and that’s something we have to eliminate. I thought we made strides the last few practices, but then we went backwards today a little bit.”
Franklin looked better later in practice. He threw a pass between two defenders to tight end Michael Egnew, and he hit Wes Kemp on a 25-yard throw up the middle and into the end zone.
Kemp was actually hurt on that play, suffering a hip pointer. Elsewhere, strong safety Kenji Jackson pulled his hamstring, defensive tackle Jimmy Burge got a concussion and tight end Stephen Drain sprained his knee. The most troubling moment was when starting defensive end Brad Madison left the field with what head coach Gary Pinkel called a shoulder sprain. Madison will get the should checked out, but Pinkel indicated that it wasn’t a serious injury.
Jimmy Costello showed he is still a serious contender for the back-up job when he completed a 34-yard pass to Marcus Lucas down the right sideline. It was the most impressive offensive play of the day for both quarterbacks and receivers. Costello completed 12-of-13 passes for 109 yards.
Freshman Corbin Berkstresser threw for 113, but he completed 16 of 29 passes and had three interceptions, including consecutive ones early in the scrimmage. One was the quarterback’s fault; the other was tipped by receiver Terry Dennis.
Two scuffles broke out. Linebacker Luke Lambert and receiver T.J. Moe traded blows after one play, while left guard Justin Britt and defensive end Kony Ealy went at it after another.
Freshman defensive lineman Shane Ray was the only player with multiple sacks (2). Ray isn't even on the depth chart, and he most likely will be redshirted, but he looks like he will add to the depth the Tigers already have at that position.
Moe and Egnew, Missouri's breakout receivers last year, led the team with 58 yards and 48 yards, respectively. Each had six catches.
The defense officially won the scrimmage 18-10.
Lawrence and the coaching staff considered it a good year, but sharing isn’t a word mentioned much at preseason camp so far this season.
The coaching staff wants one of the backs to separate himself, and they challenged Lawrence to be that guy. He’s been the guy at the top of the depth chart since the spring.
After Saturday’s scrimmage, it looks like he is staying there.
On consecutive possessions, Lawrence burst through holes and broke away for 60-yard touchdowns. The runs were the highlight of the morning for the offense, which performed erratically.
“Obviously as a running back, you always want to be the No. 1 guy,” Lawrence said. “You want those carries. You feel like you work hard in the offseason and have something to prove to yourself.”
Lawrence ran eight times for 133 yards, a team-best by more than 100 yards. Head coach Gary Pinkel said he wanted to see more consistency from the offense’s returning starters, but he called Lawrence “a spark.”
“That’s encouraging, he made some big plays,” Pinkel said. “If you want to be an impact-offense football team, you’ve got to have playmakers. You’ve got to have guys who will make special plays in special situations. We’ve seen that before around here.”
With the No. 1 offense going against the second string defense, quarterback James Franklin handed the ball off to Lawrence. The junior from Rockwell, Texas made one cut in the backfield and didn’t hesitate to move through a gap in the offensive line. Two safeties tried to stop him, but he sped up and said only one defender got a hand on him the entire play.
He did even better on the next one. This time, Lawrence broke away down the right side, and no one touched him.
“I was pressing my point (of attack),” Lawrence said of the first run. “There was a gap, and I just hit it. The coaches always say to just hit it, don’t (hesitate), just hit it.”
The back-to-back touchdown runs were so impressive that Franklin (16-of-23 passing for 187 yards) claimed they made him get his act together.
“It started with Kendial running the ball,” Franklin said. “Once I saw him, it was like, ‘Hey, he knows what he’s doing. I need to know what I’m doing.’ That kicked me into another gear.”
Lawrence repeatedly emphasized that the big plays were a product of studying “the little things” all spring and summer. Not only does he feel more comfortable running offensive plays, but he said he has a better grasp of reading defenses and the linemen’s blocking schemes.
“I feel like I came pretty far,” he said. “You always have to work hard in practice so that it translates into these big games. You have to watch so much film and just buy into the whole situation that the coaches bring you into.”
Offensive coordinator Dave Yost said Lawrence wasn’t just repeating stock quotes about working hard.
“That’s the way he’s been practicing since he came out of the spring and was able to move himself into the No. 1 spot,” Yost said. “Throughout two-a-days he’s continued to practice at a really high level. It’s going to be real beneficial to him and us as a team.”
The only ones potentially hurt are Lawrence’s main competitors, Josey and Moore, who did not have noteworthy days. Josey ran for a 10-yard touchdown but had 31 yards on nine carries. Moore ran for 13 yards on four carries.
Moore happened to be the first teammate to congratulate Lawrence after his first touchdown. Yost calls the backs "each other’s biggest fans" but doesn’t think they want another year on the committee, either.
“They all want to be the guy,” he said. “When they were in high school, they were the man. You come in here and end up on a committee like last year. We would like to have somebody separate himself, and I think they would too.
“But they all want to be the guy separating himself, not the guy separated from.”