Ever since the University of Missouri football team’s collapse down the stretch of a 2004 season that was supposed to be its most promising in years, the questions surrounding this year’s team have been swift and plentiful.
Perhaps the most enticing question though, in a preseason loaded with them, is who will be starting at tailback when the Tigers open their season Sept. 3 against Arkansas State at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
With oft-troubled running back Damien Nash off to the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, as a fifth round selection in this year’s draft, the door is suddenly wide open for either Marcus Woods or Tony Temple (both sophomores) to step into a starting role.
And what a competition it is becoming.
“It’s very intense,” said head coach Gary Pinkel, following Tuesday morning’s practice. “It’s a really healthy competition. They’re both remarkably competitive. They’re both going to play. We’re trying to develop a program where it’s like that at every position.”
According to the depth chart released by the MU Athletic Department Monday, Woods (5-foot-8, 185 lbs.) is the No. 1 man. On Tuesday, Woods, who replaced Nash on the depth chart after Nash was suspended for questioning the Tigers’ play-calling, remained with the starting unit, running through formations with the first-team offense while Temple followed him with the second-string.
But Temple (5-foot-10, 195 lbs.) enters this season with momentum on his side. After distinguished high school career at Kansas City’s Rockhurst High School, he arrived in Columbia ranked by ESPN.com as the No. 2 prep running back in the nation, behind only 2004 Heisman Trophy finalist Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma.
Temple performed well during spring practice, following a season in which he ran only six times, before a high ankle sprain ended his year. He displayed an ability to both run and catch (which will likely be crucial in the Tigers’ offensive scheme this season) and added an extra 20 pounds of muscle, bringing him to near 200 pounds.
Woods, on the other hand, will spend the coming weeks making up for lost time. After finishing last season with 428 rushing yards in 101 attempts and earning a spot on the Sporting News Freshman All-Big 12 1st-Team, including an 81-yard performance against Iowa State, Woods missed much of the spring with a strained lateral collateral (knee) ligament.
For the time being, Pinkel is remaining tight-lipped in regards to his evaluation of the two tailbacks. The two will undoubtedly share time in the Tigers’ lineup this fall, and be looked upon to compliment the running game of senior quarterback Brad Smith, whose rushing production was down by nearly two-thirds in 2004. But who starts and how many carries each player receives should largely be determined in the coming weeks.
Both players insist their competition is friendly and have been quick to lavish praise on the other during post-practice interview sessions.
“It definitely makes you better having someone like (Marcus) pushing you everyday,” Temple says. “And there are some people that don’t get talked about a lot that are real good players, too. The competition is thick, man.”
Says Woods: “He deserves to play and I think I deserve to play too. But I can’t take anything away from Tony. He’s a great player, and a really good guy, too.”
For his part, Temple insists the starting spot is of little importance to him. What he is concerned about, he says, is doing whatever he needs to do to improve a Tigers rushing attack that fell from 6th in the nation in 2003 to 48th last season.
“It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other,” Temple said. “He can start all he wants. I just want to help out when he gets tired, and just be on the field, doing whatever it takes to get a W.”
The starting tailback will likely be determined by late August, at which time Pinkel and company can focus on the next big question surrounding this season: whether or not MU can overcome last fall’s meltdown and return to bowl game prominence.