COLUMBIA — When Missouri tailback Henry Josey tore his left ACL, MCL and patellar tendon in November, there was little doubt he would be watching the season's remaining games from the sidelines.
The bigger question was: Would he return in 2012, or ever, for that matter?
Fast-forward nine months and, as the team practices for the upcoming season, Josey is still watching. Coach Gary Pinkel called the timing of Josey's return "difficult," saying there's no hurry to play him this year.
"Time will tell," Pinkel said. "The most important thing is he's healed and is 100 percent and ready to go. He's got two years left, and we want to be smart about what we do."
With last year's leading rusher out indefinitely, the Tigers need someone to help in the run game besides quarterback James Franklin, who ran for 981 yards in 2011, second only to Josey's 1,168.
Enter Kendial Lawrence.
Lawrence is currently projected as the starter, a familiar position. He began last season atop the depth chart before breaking his left fibula in practice prior to the team's second game at Arizona State. De'Vion Moore then sprained his right ankle in the first series against the Sun Devils, paving the way for Josey.
"He was our starting tailback last year coming out of camp and coming out of spring ball a year ago," offensive coordinator Dave Yost said. "We know he has that ability. I think you saw last year, when Henry did go down, we didn't have Henry Josey, but we still had a threat at tailback."
His broken fibula healed, Lawrence ran for 371 yards in the final four games, including the game in which Josey injured his knee.
"Toward the end of the season, my injuries started going away," Lawrence said. "Around probably the bowl game was when I was at my best. And I want to pick it up from there."
Lawrence finished with 566 yards, or 566 yards more than Marcus Murphy, who's second on this year's depth chart and returning after sitting out last season with a torn labrum. In his freshman season, Murphy carried the ball 22 times for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
While Lawrence and Murphy — who primarily served as a kickoff-returner as a freshman — are both 5-9, under 200 pounds and threats in the open field, current third-stringer Jared McGriff-Culver provides the team an option to advance in short-yardage situations. The 5-11, 250-pound tailback only rushed 16 times a year ago but played in all 13 games.
Yost said the team isn't afraid to use different tailbacks for specialized situations or rely on its depth as it did out of necessity in 2011.
"We seem to always have a bunch of small good guys," Franklin said. "We're going to have one starter, but we've got a lot of guys who are going to play and make an impact."
With Josey out and Franklin admittedly reluctant to carry as heavy a load again after injuring his shoulder in spring camp, Missouri faces a difficult task in using inexperienced tailbacks against the Southeastern Conference.
The Tigers use a spread offense to create holes for its tailbacks — and Franklin — to run through.
The tactic worked last year against the Big 12 — Missouri finished 11th in the country with 3,172 yards rushing and 5.4-yards per attempt.
Notably stout defensive lines in the SEC may not play along, though. Excluding Texas A&M, which also left the Big 12, six of the Tigers' seven other conference opponents this season project heavier starting defensive lines than any team Missouri faced last season.
"We're coming in there new kids on the block," Culver said. "New style. So they have to adjust to us. We have to adjust to them. But they have to adjust to us."
But Lawrence thinks the comparison between conferences is overblown, saying the game is the same.
"We know at the end of the day, we're football players just like they are. And we work just like they do," he said.