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Missouri Football Spring Preview: Can Ish Witter fend off a crowded pack of RBs?

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Spring football practices began yesterday, but our spring preview series continues. Today we're looking at running backs.

Derrick Forsythe / Rock M Nation

Running Backs

Seniors Juniors Sophomores Freshman Class of 2016
Ish Witter 5'10 190 Trevon Walters (R) 5'10 200 Ryan Williams (R) 5'10 178 Damarea Crockett 5'11 215
Chase Abbington (R) 6'2 209 Natereace Strong (R) 6'1 210 Marquise Doherty (R) 6'0 193
Gone:

Russell Hansbrough, Tyler Hunt

Returning Starters:

Ish Witter (126-518, 1 TD, 15-143)

Other Returning:

Chase Abbington (6-39), Trevon Walters(†), Ryan Williams, Marquise Doherty

Newcomers:

Natereace Strong, Damarea Crockett, Early Enrollees: None

Recap: Russell Hansbrough was hurt, Tyler Hunt was under-utilized, and Ish Witter was roundly criticized. Witter was miscast in his role, as he’s better in space than between the tackles. Chase Abbington led the team in yards per carry (6.5 average in only six carries) but struggled to stick in the rotation. Some argued he lacked the strength to be effective last year. Trevon Walters is finally healthy from a knee injury that was aggravated in the car accident he was in with Terry Beckner Jr. Ryan Williams and Marquise Doherty both redshirted last year. Williams was the one who traveled with the team to Kentucky when the staff realized Morgan Steward wouldn’t be able to contribute. (Doherty is currently playing baseball and will likely not be practicing with the football team during the spring because of schedule conflicts.)

Predictions: There could be a dramatic change between spring and fall starters since four-star JUCO transfer Nate Strong won't be on campus until later this year. If Walters remains healthy he could usurp Witter.

For the fall, I think Strong will be listed as a starter with Abbington and Witter as tactical backups depending on the formation. Walters, Williams and Damarea Crockett will all compete for more playing time based on health. I wouldn’t rule out Crockett seeing the field as a true freshman.

What to Watch: Who totes the rock for Mizzou’s new offense? How exactly does the running game change from last year? More specifically, does Mizzou do a better job at the zone-read, and if so, how much does the quarterback actually run it when he should? When asked about it at yesterday's practice, Drew Lock could only say "we threw the ball a LOT today."

There’s a lot to read about how good teams run it. Can Mizzou replicate that? Remember, Josh Heupel was at Oklahoma when Samaje Perine had 427 yards against Kansas.

There also has been some quiet concern about whether Strong can remain healthy due to his injury history. I could see Abbington having a Kenyan Drake-like role, but is he up for more? We’ve already heard the new coaching staff preach about being a "north-south" running team, but was that really the problem with last year’s attack? Cornell Ford is making the move from coaching the secondary to the running backs -- how will he perform in that role?

Dan Keegan: Witter has proven to be a capable but flawed runner at Missouri. If the running game is going to see a big turnaround this season, the bedrock will be in changes up front, but there will need to be new names in the backfield emerging as well. Abbington is a name most fans are familiar with, and he had, like, one or two really good runs but overall struggled to adapt in his first year on campus. More adjustments, more workouts, and more beef up front will seem to be tailor-made for his style of running.

The name we should all be familiar with is Natereace Strong. The earlier that announcers are stumbling over Strong’s give name, the better for Mizzou. Nate-race (I like this one) will arrive on campus in the summer, but has the kind of raw talent to make an impact just a few months later. Na-tarious (also good!) held offers from Ohio State, Florida State, Nebraska, and others, but stuck with the Tigers through a year of junior college ball and is found on most lists of top juco talent entering D-1 ball. Na-tear-iss (not as fun) is close friends with Terry Beckner and could find himself making the same impact as a newcomer that the big man did in 2015.

Bill C.: I think Witter got a raw deal with fans, especially late last season. In the last four games, he rushed 37 times for 176 yards (4.8 per carry) and caught three passes for 54 yards, a clear step forward. And he also completely fended off Abbington on the depth chart and stole carries from Tyler Hunt.

The previous coaching staff clearly thought Witter was capable of a decent amount, and while a fresh start and another year of acclimation will give Abbington a chance to catch up, I'm not going to automatically assume Witter's getting demoted. It might be good for Mizzou if he were, simply because that would mean Abbington or Walters (or Williams or Strong or ... you get the point) indeed took a lovely step forward, but Witter's going to have a chance, small or not.