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Missouri’s RB battle is a test of experience vs. size

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Bigger backs may seem to be the wave, but size won’t determine Mizzou’s system

Witter-DF-MSU

“Blow up last season. Every win. Every loss. Every headline. Blow it all up, because all that matters is what you do next.”

This quote by Robert Griffin III, during a 2013 Adidas commercial, is a perfect description of the mindset that Missouri Football has adopted heading into the upcoming 2016 season.

After a tumultuous season that featured countless injuries, suspensions, losses and negative headlines, the football program heads into 2016 looking to distance itself from everything that went wrong during the 2015 campaign.

“I think that our guys are excited about getting ready for the [upcoming] season, and they’re way past last year,” said running backs coach Cornell Ford. “We can’t get to where we want to get to thinking about the past.”

Through the first weekend of team camp, the differences from last season to this season are already quite evident.

One of the biggest changes is currently taking place in the Missouri backfield. Replacing small, shifty backs like Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy are three running backs that are all at least 6’0 and 210 pounds.

The necessity for a big, gritty between-the-tackles rusher has always been a potential area of concern for the Tigers, the move to the SEC has made this more of a perceived issue. The Tigers averaged a pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry last year while struggling mightily in short yardage situations.

“In this conference, because of the defenses that we’ll be going against, bigger backs are more prone to stay healthy, although they have to take hits as well. You want depth but also size,” said Ford.

With the addition of graduate transfer Alex Ross (6’1, 220), JUCO transfer Nate Strong (6’0, 210) and true freshman Damarea Crockett (6’0, 225, according to coach Ford), there is reason to believe that Mizzou’s rushing attack can improve immensely.

“I think that I have the right guys in the room to get it done,” said Ford. “Now we have some big guys in the room, and we think that’s gonna help us.”

Adding three larger backs is definitely a plus for Missouri, but each addition has questions to answer, most of which surround the lack of experience and playing time.

For instance, Ross played for four years at Oklahoma but was never able to win the starting running back job. As a result, Ross has only accumulated 123 career rushes. In his defense, he did make the most of the opportunities that he received, averaging 6.4 yards per carry during his tenure.

But Big 12 defenses pale in comparison to defenses in the SEC. Crockett and Strong both have similar questions, as neither of them have recorded a snap at the D-1 level.

“When they walk in the door, we know they are talented. We just hope that they live up to it. But it’s a whole different level,” acknowledged Ford. “The speed factor at this level is unbelievable, these guys have to learn the game and be able to play at a faster speed. That’s probably the biggest challenge for guys coming in at this level.”

Somewhat lost in the media hype that has been surrounding the three new backs is returning Mizzou starter, junior Ish Witter. Though Witter led Mizzou last season in rushing with 518 yards and an average of 4.1 yards a carry, he has flown under the radar.

However, if you ask Coach Ford, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I know where he’s at. Right now he’s our leading guy,” assured Ford. “He’s come a long way, but he still has a long way to go.”

Bigger backs may seem to be the wave, but size won’t determine Mizzou’s system.

“We aren’t necessarily going for a bigger back system, we are going for a more effective back more than anything else,” said Ford. “But I don’t care if they are big or small, we have Ross and Ish, and I expect both of them to walk on the field and get it done."

Witter’s experience and knowledge of the coaches expectations at Mizzou gives him a slight advantage but so far none of the backs have separated themselves from the pack.

“I told them from day one that all jobs are open. So Alex (Ross) knew that coming in, Crockett knew that coming in, Ish knows it coming in,” explained Ford. “So they’re all in the same boat right now. We honestly don’t have a starter just yet.”

No matter who winds up as the starting running back for Mizzou, one thing is certain according to Coach Ford: Mizzou's running game will be very effective this season.

“We’re going to run the ball between the tackles; that’ll be our bread and butter,” said Ford. “We feel like we’ve got a pretty good group of running backs, and I guarantee you that we’ll be very productive this season.”