Led by Henry Josey, the Tigers boasted a lethal three-headed attack on the ground that averaged the 16th most rushing yards per game last season at 238. Their ability to balance a prolific aerial attack with an equally potent ground game was one of the driving forces behind their unprecedented success in 2013.
Unfortunately, Josey will not be back in 2014. After racking up 1,166 yards and 16 touchdowns, he opted to skip his senior season and enter the NFL Draft, leaving Missouri without 35 percent of its rushing yards (he was their only 1,000-yard rusher) and 46 percent of their rushing touchdowns (he was the only tailback with more than nine rushing touchdowns). However, much like the quarterback situation, Josey's replacements are experienced and more than capable of shouldering the workload.
"It creates bigger opportunities for guys like Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy," coach Gary Pinkel said prior to the start of spring camp. "They are good friends with Henry and they'll miss him, but they're also competitors who want the ball in their hands… I know they're really excited about having the chance to get more carries,"
Let's start with Hansbrough.
He was the team's second-leading rusher last season, carrying the ball 105 times for 660 yards and four scores. He set his career-high with 104 rushing yards on eight carries in the season opener against Murray State, then matched it two weeks later on 13 carries against Indiana. The redshirt junior remained productive in SEC play, collecting 289 yards and a touchdown on 60 carries.
Unlike Josey and Murphy, Hansbrough is much more of a dual-threat back capable of accelerating past defenders or simply powering through them (see below). He's especially popular amongst the experts, many of whom have pegged him to "breakout" in 2014.
Hansbrough gives you balance as a runner, Murphy gives you balance as an offensive weapon. He can beat you with his speed as a runner, a receiver and a returner.
Basically, he can do it all.
Selected to the 2014 Paul Hornung Award watch list (most versatile player), Murphy carried the ball 92 times for 601 yards and nine touchdowns, caught 11 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown, returned 27 kickoffs for 599 yards and returned 21 punts for 146 yards. That's a grand total of 1,425 all-purpose yards and 10 touchdowns.
The keys to Murphy's success? His speed and his field-vision. He is capable of quickly locating the soft spot in a defense then exploiting it for big time yards. Case in point:
Together, Murphy and Hansbrough offer the Tiger offense some serious flexibility when it comes to play-calling.
“One of them might run inside zone a little better, the other one outside zone,” offensive coordinator Josh Henson told the Columbia Daily Tribune. “One of them might catch the ball a little better out of the backfield than the other one does. You just tailor, when they’re in the game, to them a little bit, as far as what plays you’re going to call."
The coaches have spoken very highly of Morgan Steward, the third member of Mizzou's running back corps. Steward is big and fast—like, arguably the fastest player on the team fast—he's just been pigeonholed down the depth chart because of Josey, Hansbrough and Murphy.
"In the SEC you have to be very deep at every position certainly, but tailback is crucial to have three or four guys who can get the job done," Pinkel said after that first scrimmage. "We were very deep last year there, and a guy like Steward didn't get a ton of opportunities, but he's trying to show now that he can be someone to depend on. I was pleased with what he did today, and now the challenge is to continue to do that through the rest of camp."
When Hansbrough and Murphy both went down with injuries during the first scrimmage of the spring, Steward used it as an opportunity to show off his blazing speed, ripping off a 58-yard scoring run—his third rushing TD of the game—that sealed a 19-11 victory for the offense. He finished the game with 117 rushing yards on 13 carries and broke camp with 173 yards on 30 attempts. Not too shabby for a guy who ran it 21 times for 84 yards last season.
“It was really hard, but I’m glad I’m in a position to step up now for the team,” Steward said. “I’ve got to keep focused, but we’re still a long way from the season. But it’s very exciting to see everything I’ve been working for on the horizon. It’s been two years I’ve worked for this, so I’ve got to take advantage of it.”
The speed all three backs bring to the table and it will be interesting to see how they are packaged together and rotated around for certain situations. Considering Murphy's pass-catching abilities, he may be used as more of a receiver, either out of the backfield or in the slot. That would not only add another wrinkle to Mizzou's offense, but it would also create more playing time for Steward.
"We have three high‑level running backs in our program right now—guys that I think are high‑level SEC running backs. They also catch the ball well," Pinkel said. "In our offense, we can use our running backs as receivers… There's a lot of things we can do."
As for who will be this team's leading back heading into next season, I think the answer is Hansbrough. Despite his injury-hampered performance during the spring (11 carries, 81 yards), his experience gives him a slight edge over Steward, while his balanced skill set as a runner qualifies him ahead of Murphy, who will be heavily utilized (and further addressed) as a member of the special teams.
Next: Scouting the Receivers
An overview of our entire 2014 Mizzou football preview can be found here.
Brian Haenchen is a three-sport columnist for InsideSTL. You can follow him on Twitter: @Brian_Haenchen.