COLUMBIA — Quarterback James Franklin held the ball out in front of him with both hands. Kendial Lawrence ran in front of Franklin, leaving the defense wondering which one of the two would end up with the ball.
By the time it was clear that Lawrence had the ball, the 5-foot-9-inch senior was already running full speed toward the sideline. He turned upfield and gained nearly 20 yards before he was even touched.
The play gives the quarterback the choice to hold onto the ball or hand it off, so many are left guessing. But Lawrence said he can usually tell if he is getting the ball by looking at what the defense is doing. At the start of the play, he said he keeps his eyes downfield and his arms ready for a possible hand-off.
"It's almost to the point where I feel it's natural," Lawrence said. "The main thing you have to do is basically trust the quarterback."
The Missouri offense often spreads receivers across the field, but running backs still play a large role in the team's offense. The Tigers averaged 244 rushing yards per game last season, ranking ninth in the nation. They also tied for eighth in the nation with 5.4 yards per carry.
Brian Jones, Tigers running backs coach, said the offense is spread out to force defenses to defend the whole field. He said the offense primarily uses a zone blocking scheme, which means there is no specific hole for the runner to find.
"The play could be designated for an inside hole, but depending how things happen up front, the ball can actually bounce outside depending what the defense gives you," Jones said. "And so the running back has to have really great vision."
Vision is something that Lawrence sees as his strength. The redshirt senior from Rockwall, Texas gained 566 yards and scored five touchdowns last season.
"You have to know how to take the steps to get the linebackers to flow over," Lawrence said. "And you have to be patient for your offensive line to pick up the blocks."
When Lawrence missed time with a broken leg last season, junior Henry Josey seized the starting role and flourished in the offense, averaging 8.1 yards per carry. This season, Josey is not expected to play because he's still recovering a injury he sustained last season, leaving Lawrence and Marcus Murphy as the lead candidates to replace his production.
Murphy, a 5-foot-9 redshirt sophomore from Dallas, missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. He said he is eager to get back on the field and showcase his ability, either by running the ball or catching passes. The running backs have been working with the receivers during training camp.
"When you are able to take your tailback out of the backfield and line him up at one of the receiver spots and kind of throw him the ball and have him do things in the secondary, that kind of adds another level to your offense where they can't just know that if a running back is in the game, it's going to be a running play," Jones said.
Jones wants another player to take over at tailback the way Josey did last season. He said he likes what he sees from Lawrence and Murphy and that they have set a good example by running routes correctly and catching the ball well.
"It's not bad to be a one-dimensional running back, but it's always better to be versatile," Murphy said. "I take pride in working with these receivers."
NOTES: Senior left guard Travis Ruth has a torn left triceps tendon and is scheduled to undergo surgery on Thursday. Ruth was projected to start at left guard this season. There is no timetable for his return.
Redshirt freshman right tackle Taylor Chappell has a torn ACL in his left knee and will need surgery. Chappell was No. 2 on the depth chart at right tackle and there is no timetable for his return. Redshirt junior Justin Britt, who is No. 1 on the depth chart at the position, is currently out with a foot injury but is expected to return during training camp.
Missouri Head Athletic Trainer Rex Sharp did not rule out the possible return of Ruth or Chappell this season.