COLUMBIA — The Missouri running game is ever-changing.
The latest change came Tuesday, when it was announced that Kendial Lawrence has a broken fibula and will be sidelined at least four weeks.
Lawrence was the starter at running back for the Tigers in their season-opening win against Miami (Ohio) on Saturday. He carried the ball nine times for just 10 yards and caught one pass for a 2-yard gain.
Last season, Lawrence rushed for 422 yards and dazzled fans with several long runs, including the longest Missouri rush of the year: a 71-yard dash for a touchdown in the Tigers’ loss to Texas Tech.
While Lawrence has the ability to make notable long and exciting runs, he has the tendency to have quiet games as well, as he showed last week. His 1.1 yards-per-carry mark Saturday against the RedHawks was not a unique phenomenon. Three times last season, his yards-per-carry was less than 2.0, including his performance against Iowa State, when he gained just 5 yards on six carries.
His injury is significant, but the Tigers’ running corps is used to this amount of volatility.
Two seasons ago, Derrick Washington accounted for more than 52 percent of the Tigers' rushing yards. Last season, the Missouri running game could have been described as a four-headed monster when a quartet of backs carried the load for the Tigers.
This season: more change.
All four heads returned for the 2011 season, but a season-ending injury to Marcus Murphy in preseason camp slightly altered those plans. Now, after just one game, Lawrence is also sitting out.
So, entering Friday night's game at Arizona State, the Missouri backfield doesn't look like it was supposed to look. Even before Lawrence’s injury, Tigers coach Gary Pinkel had three backs — Lawrence, Henry Josey and De’Vion Moore — listed as even on Monday's depth chart.
Another new twist to the Tigers' running game is new quarterback James Franklin. It was Franklin, not a running back, who led the team in rushing against Miami (Ohio).
He carried the ball 14 times for 72 yards and a touchdown. Franklin’s running ability already has made him more of a force on the ground than last year’s quarterback, Blaine Gabbert.
“The difference is we have another key in the running game in James,” Josey said. “He’s a good read. He also runs just as tough as we do, and when he sees the hole, he goes just like we would.”
Moore also said in some ways Franklin seems like one of the running backs.
“He’s in the backfield with us,” Moore said. “It’s a great asset having him back there with the capability to be able to go and run. It’s just another threat. With the combination of running and throwing, it just gives the defense something else to worry about.”
Franklin said he is running more than Gabbert did, but he said the team is just trying to even out running and passing plays. He estimated that only three or four of the runs he made on Saturday were designed for him specifically, and he had the option to handoff or keep the ball on the others.
Last season, Gabbert led the Tigers in rushing in just three games and rushed for more than 72 yards just twice. Franklin was the leading rusher for the Tigers in their 2010 game against Colorado, going for 37 yards.
Gabbert’s 232 yards on the season ranked fourth on the team. After just one game, Franklin is almost a third of the way there.
But despite Franklin's potential as a runner, Moore said the running backs must operate as they always have.
“We still have our responsibilities as running backs,” Moore said. “We still have a responsibility to protect him (Franklin), have a responsibility to move the ball when it’s in our hands. It hasn’t changed anything that we’re responsible for, as far as our responsibilities. It’s just another weapon in the backfield.”
Arizona State allowed just 88 total rushing yards in their season-opening win against FCS opponent UC-Davis. To amass more than that, the Tigers’ running game will have to find a way to rush without Kendial Lawrence. In other words, do what it’s been doing for the past 13 months: adapt to change.