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‘You need three’: Downing could be key to another Missouri RB trio

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Dawson Downing’s 54-yard rushing touchdown Saturday, the first of his career, might be the defining play in what has the potential to be a breakout 2019 season.

Mississippi v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The past few seasons, Missouri football has deployed a running back unit that featured at least three backs who could produce big numbers.

In 2017, Larry Rountree III joined Ish Witter and Damarea Crockett as the featured backs, and Rountree took on an even larger role when Crockett went down with a shoulder injury to finish with the third-highest rushing total for a freshman in Tigers history.

In 2018, Crockett and Rountree combined for 1,925 rushing yards, and they were followed close behind by freshman Tyler Badie. His skillset allowed offensive coordinator Derek Dooley to use him more in the passing game, and he ended the season with 567 combined passing and rushing yards.

At one point or another over the past few seasons, a third running had broken out to seemingly create a three-headed monster at the position for Missouri.

“Last year we had Crockett and ‘Tree’ (Rountree) kind of banging around, and then Badie would come in and do his thing,” Dooley said. “You need three backs. I’ve always felt that way in this league. You need three. It’s a physical league. One guy can’t do it, and even two it gets hard.”

Up until last Saturday’s win over Ole Miss, it felt like the Tigers would be mostly rolling with Rountree and Badie as a 1-2 punch.

But now, Missouri might once again be building that three-headed monster.

Dawson Downing, a redshirt junior from Mission, Kansas, had been solid for the Tigers prior to Saturday, producing 111 yards on 20 carries (10 of which came Week 2 against West Virginia) while also playing fullback on short-yardage plays. However, he had yet to have a play to define his possible breakout into a main piece for the rushing attack.

That is, until the third quarter against the Rebels.

Downing took a handoff from quarterback Kelly Bryant on an inside zone, ran between his blockers in receiver Jonathan Nance and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam and streaked 54 yards to the end zone for the first touchdown of his college career. For some added dramatic effect, Ole Miss defensive back Jaylon Jones caught Downing just inside the 15-yard line and attempted to drag him down, only for Downing to stiff-arm him with his left and just barely stretch his right arm over the goal line for the score.

After that play, Downing might’ve forced himself into the No. 3 spot at running back.

“I mean, there’s no drop off when Dawson’s in the game,” Bryant said. “He can run, he can catch, he can pass-block. Smart player. So there’s no drop off. That’s the biggest thing.”

Downing — whose father, Ken, was an all-conference corner for Missouri in the mid-’70s — turned down other Division-I offers in order to attend MU. He walked on to the team in 2016 but redshirted that season. He saw action in five games in 2017 and then, after receiving a scholarship shortly before the 2018 season, primarily saw time on special teams the next year.

His role has changed throughout his time in Columbia, but the work ethic that’s gotten him to this point hasn’t.

“It’s amazing to see that. You know, I’ve had a chance to watch Dawson since I first came here, and every single season he grows into something real special,” left tackle Yasir Durant said.

As of now, there isn’t officially a player who has taken on Badie’s role from last season or Rountree’s from the season before.

All of the backup running backs, which includes Downing in addition to Anthony Watkins, Simi Bakare and Jerney Jones, have received playing time in various games throughout the current season. Bakare’s late-2018 uptick in playing time seemed to signal that he could be next in line, and Watkins had a strong preseason.

But Downing, who running backs coach Cornell Ford said had the best offseason of anyone in the unit, looks to be ready to break away from the pack.

“In the SEC, you’ve got some big guys out there, guys that’ll be playing on Sundays,” Downing said. “So you need a bunch of fresh bodies back there, and guys that you can trust to put the ball in their hands.”

If he doesn’t become that clear-cut No. 3 running back, no worries.

His coaches know he’ll still be the same hard-working player who just wanted to earn his spot three years ago.

“He always accepts the role that he has, he takes coaching,” head coach Barry Odom said, “and every time his number is called, he tries to do it to the best of his ability. He’s a very, very selfless person, cares about this program and cares about his teammates.”