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Mizzou Football Position Previews: The Backfield

Missouri boasts one of the most tantalizing backfields in the SEC. Our football writers examine how Kelly Bryant, Larry Rountree and others are primed for success in 2019.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 15 Georgia Southern at Clemson Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome back to another season of Missouri football at Rock M Nation. Like every season, we’ll be running down the list of position groups, previewing each one with members of our football coverage team. You can find links to all pieces in the series here.

It may be crude to put it this way, but the 2019 season will essentially be the Kelly Bryant show. The transfer QB is taking over for one of the best QBs to ever play at Mizzou, and how he performs will decide whether or not this team reaches its ceiling. What are your expectations for Bryant, and how do you see the offense adapting to his style?

Brandon Kiley, Lead Football Writer: Kelly Bryant is the single biggest storyline for Mizzou football in 2019. First it was the commitment in December, then it was Bryant deciding not to transfer after Missouri’s bowl ban was announced. And now it’s all about what Bryant actually does on the football field.

We have only seen one season of what Bryant looks like as a starting quarterback in college football. It was quite good — but it also took place at one of the two most talented programs in the country. The obvious question is how much of Clemson’s success was because of Bryant, and how much of it was a result of the talent surrounding Bryant.

We should find out soon.

Bryant’s numbers do remind me a bit of a former Missouri quarterback. In his 18 games played in 2017-2018, Bryant completed 66 percent of his passes for 3,260 yards, 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He added 222 carries for 795 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground.

When James Franklin experienced his breakout as a (healthy) sophomore at Missouri, he finished the 2011 season completing 63 percent of his passes for 2,850 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He added 217 carries for 980 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground.

Franklin posted those numbers in 13 games. Bryant posted them in 18 games. It’s certainly not apples to apples, but if you’re looking for a comparison of what Bryant could look like in this Missouri offense, it’s the best version of Franklin, the version we saw in 2011.

Here’s to hoping West Virginia doesn’t have the next Brock Osweiler ready to throw for 350 yards in week two this time around.

Nate Edwards, Staff Football Analyst: Obviously Derek Dooley is his own OC, but I believe the Bryant/Dooley Offense will be similar to the ‘13 offense spearheaded by James Franklin and the Josey/Murphy/Hansbrough hydra at RB. That’s a lot of reads, speed options, and spread-power concepts that open up passes to the boundary. At its best last year, Mizzou was fairly balanced, but the particular pass plays were more deep and/or crossing routes, especially once Albert O went down. This offense won’t impress by numbers, but will be impressive in time of possession and third down conversions.

Ryan Herrera, Football Beat Writer: Kelly Bryant is going to bring a new dynamic to Missouri’s offense. Drew Lock was all about gunning the ball down the field. Sure, he had the ability to use his legs, but not in the same way that Bryant can. I can see more play-action and option calls coming from Derek Dooley, and Bryant’s mobility will open the field even more for guys like Albert Okwuegbunam. We won’t see Bryant put up the passing numbers that Lock did in 2017, but he will bring a nice mix of passing and running ability that will be a big part of the success of the Tigers’ offense.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For as much hype as he has, Bryant isn’t the only playmaker in the backfield. Larry Rountree III has quietly become one of the SEC’s best running backs and could become a household name with a breakout year. How does Mizzou’s feature back take the next step?

Brandon Kiley: Missouri has quietly been one of the best schools in the country at producing consistently productive running backs no matter the situation.

Did you know 2015 is the only season in the last eight years in which Missouri failed to produce a 1,000-yard running back? Despite that, Missouri hasn’t seen a running back post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons since Tony Temple more than a decade ago in 2006-2007.

So, how does Rountree take the next step? It’s simple, really. He’s proven what he can do in the running game. I don’t think anyone has any concerns about what he can do in that area. He’s a legitimate NFL prospect with prototypical size and speed for the position.

The only thing that’s been missing from Rountree’s game his first two years on campus is his pass-catching. In fact, it’s something Missouri has struggled to produce for quite some time. The last Tigers featured running back to finish a season with more than 200 yards receiving for a season was Derrick Washington more than a decade ago.

Nobody has any question as to whether or not Rountree can handle the load. We’ve seen it. Nobody doubts his talent. It’s been on display since the moment he took the field as a freshman. The next step for him to take is as a receiver. We’ll see if Missouri’s offense allows for him to take that step.

Nate Edwards: Is there a next step to take for him? He was essentially the feature back last year and performed very well in that roll. I guess a larger development in the short passing games (flares, WHEEL ROUTES, etc.) could be added, but at the core function he’s proven he can excel. I’m more concerned what a newish o-line can do for him and how much more tackle absorption and juking he’ll potentially have to do.

Ryan Herrera: I think Larry Rountree already proved last season that he was Missouri’s top running back, and that might’ve played a part in Damarea Crockett’s decision to turn pro. With Crockett gone, Rountree is free to take over the top spot on the depth chart. While it might be tough for him to accomplish, I can see Rountree leading the SEC in rushing yards. He finished fourth in the conference with 1,216 yards last season, even with Crockett on the roster. His 1,919 yards through his first two seasons are also the most by a running back in Missouri history, and I think this is the season he firmly establishes himself among the top backs the Tigers have ever put on the field.

NCAA Football: Missouri at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Like his predecessor, Barry Odom has always kept a stable of talented playmakers in his backfield. Who else do you see contributing outside of Bryant and Rountree?

Brandon Kiley: I legitimately believe the Tigers could boast one of the best rushing attacks in the country. The Godfather Bill Connelly tracks a stat called “rushing marginal efficiency.” To boil it down, it essentially tracks how good you are at running the football on any given play relative to what should have been expected from that play. Based on that measurement, Missouri was one of the 15 best rushing offenses in the country last year.

Insert Kelly Bryant, one of the best rushing quarterbacks in the country.

Oh, and insert a run-blocking offensive line that returns arguably its three best starters and ranked among the top 20 in all of college football last year in run blocking, per Football Outsiders.

So who else am I excited for? Tyler Badie. This projects to be a relatively easy-to-predict backfield in a lot of ways. Rountree is going to get the bulk of the load on the ground. Bryant is going to contribute — especially in short-yardage situations. And Badie projects as the change-of-pace and third down running back. He excelled early on in that role as a freshman a year ago. I’m fascinated to see what he can do after a year in the strength & conditioning program, and an even better understanding of what he can bring to the offense.

Nate Edwards: Anthony Watkins was raved about during his recruitment and I’d love to see another youngster step up. It was Badie last year and Rountree before that, so it would be nice to see yet another freshman make a splash on game day. Simi Bakare did enough in practice to warrant a redshirt avoidance, but he didn’t seem to have the same type of impact as Badie. He would be another candidate, but from a class-balance/mirroring standpoint, I’d want to see Watkins take the mantle as next best thing.

Ryan Herrera: This one should be obvious, but Tyler Badie will be the third biggest producer —behind Bryant and Rountree — in Missouri’s backfield. He was the third man in the Tigers’ running back trio last season and already proved to be capable of handling SEC defenses by putting up 809 all-purpose yards as a freshman, which ranked third on the team. He also led Missouri’s running back unit with 130 receiving yards, and I see him making just as big of an impact in the air as he does on the ground. Behind him, Simi Bakare could possibly play the same role Badie did in 2018. Time will tell if he truly becomes a consistent part of the rotation, but he’s looked promising in limited snaps and could be a surprise contributor come September.