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Mizzou and the Myth of the “Big Back”

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On Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, big running backs at Missouri and other fictional creatures of lore.

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Missouri
Damarea Crockett is bigger than feature backs of Missouri past. And that may be a good thing.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The average elite, Power-5 halfback runs about 5-foot-11, 211 pounds.

I’m not just pulling that number out of the blue. I thought you knew me better than that by now.

For the past five years (2012-16), I took all the running backs that averaged more than 100 yards per game in a season for current Power-5 teams and charted them along with their listed height and weight for the season, with considerable help from the always indispensable CFBStats.com.

In 2016, there were 23 such backs. They were 5-11, 213 on average.
In 2015, there were 28. On average: 5-11, 213.
2014: 24. Average: 5-11, 212.
2013: 23. Average: 5-11, 212.
2012: 21. Average: 5-11, 205. (Psch. Lightweights.)

On the whole, there were 119 such backs, and they averaged 5-11, 211.

(Stat geek sidebar: this sort of repeatedly replicated, highly consistent data -- both in terms of 100-yard average backs and their average height and weight -- made me giddy. I know correlation is not causation...but isn’t it curious that Power-5 teams seem to have a “type” when it comes to average body size for their feature backs?)

Anyway, here are the lists, both by season and overall:

Now, we come to Missouri.

Missouri does not recruit big backs. That has been a note of consternation among the fanbase in the four years I’ve been in Columbia, at least.

The strain of anxiety goes a little something like this:

“Why can’t Missouri get a guy like D’Onta Foreman? He’s blowing up dudes!”

Derrick Henry is kicking the crud out of Missouri’s defense. Why can’t the Tigers get a big back like him to do the same?”

“That Samaje Perine dude is legit. Why can’t Missouri get one of him?”

(Sidebar: Missouri was actually seriously in on Foreman pretty late, if I’m remembering correctly.)

And I don’t know why I parenthesesed off that short sidebar, because it actually kind of brings me to my next point.

It’s not about just getting a big running back. A big running back, in and of himself, is not going to deliver the 1,600-yard seasons. It’s about getting the right big running back.

With the spread, fastball offense Missouri runs, it’s tough to get that “right” big running back. Most of them, as a function of that coveted size, need a little bit more time between plays and do better in ball-control, grind offenses that wear a defense down with pummeling.

Everybody wants the Missouri offense to be the Baylor offense, for example. Well, check out the two Baylor backs on the list: 5-9, 200-pound Shock Linwood and 5-10, 210-pound Lache Seastrunk.

Both “undersized” when it comes to elite, Power-5 back standards (albeit Seastrunk, barely).

When you look at the elite “big” backs on that list, Missouri probably didn’t have a puncher’s chance with most of them.

Montee Ball probably hurts. Ezekiel Elliott definitely does (Editor’s note: That’s debatable).

But Missouri’s not going out and getting Henry, Perine, T.J. Yeldon, Leonard Fournette, Todd Gurley.

So what kind of back does Missouri feature?

Let’s take it over the past decade, from 2007 to 2016. In that time, the Tigers have had 48 running backs (including duplicates) register at least one carry in a season.

Compared to the 5-11, 211 norm we established earlier, 32 of those data points came from “small” backs, 16 came from “big” backs.

A couple (Tyler Hunt and Derrick Washington) were like Blade from the Blade movie series. You know, Blade. Daywalker. Can go between both worlds.

So 5-11, 215 Tyler Hunt was a “big” back in 2014, but he was a “small” back in 2012 (5-11, 205) and 2015 (5-11, 210).

Washington was a “small” back in 2007 (5-11, 200) and a “big” one in 2008 (5-11, 215) and 2009 (6-0, 225).

Here’s the breakdown:

The average Missouri back from the past decade is 5-10, 202 pounds. Or about Ish Witter...how much of a “true” 5-10 Witter is constitutes a discussion for another day.

Most of the Tigers’ most successful backs have been the “small” variety: Witter, Russell Hansbrough, Marcus Murphy, Henry Josey, Kendial Lawrence.

The “big” ones who have been most successful is a cast of basically two: Washington...and current world-beater Damarea Crockett.

Then you’ve got some little-used walk-ons and some scholarship misses: Chase Abbington, Gilbert Moye, Greg White, Morgan Steward (even though he definitely had mitigating circumstances. The jury’s still out on Nate Strong, obviously, but he's already been passed by one of his “big” brethren (Crockett) on the depth.

Speaking of Crockett: he may be the closest thing to that “right” type of big back we were talking about earlier.

He said he plays around 230 pounds, so he packs power between the tackles. And he’s conditioned well enough to run nine straight times on a 90-second drive, as Tennessee can well attest.

So find yourself a man that can do both, Missouri. And maybe catch some passes while he’s at it.

Early enrollee Isaiah Miller is starting his Missouri career at a listed 5-11, 195 and could, conceivably, put on those 15-20 pounds and start bordering into “big.”

Spring game star Dawson Downing (6-0, 225) is already very firmly in the “big” category and 2017 signee Larry Rountree III (5-10, 183) has the frame to be bigger than the Joseys, Hansbroughs and Murphys of yore.

Of the 18 running backs or all-purpose backs Rivals.com says Missouri has offered for 2018 so far, 12 are listed as 5-11 or taller.

With Crockett’s success, are big backs the future for Missouri? Maybe. But only if they’re the right ones.