COLUMBIA, Mo. — Back in August, Missouri offensive coordinator Derek Dooley politely scoffed at the premise that his team was loaded with great depth at running back. The Tigers returned 1,200-yard rusher Larry Rountree and all-purpose wiz Tyler Badie, but next to nothing in terms of other established producers.
“Great is a relative term,” Dooley said at the time.
Through six games, Rountree and Badie have been the 1-2 punch the Tigers expected, but on Saturday a third pair of thundering legs entered the equation. Midway through the third quarter against Mississippi, 225-pound junior Dawson Downing reminded everyone he’s part of the platoon, taking a routine inside zone running play 54 yards through the teeth of the Rebels defense for his first career touchdown.
Maybe the Tigers have great depth after all.
As No. 22 Mizzou (5-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) heads on the road Saturday to play Vanderbilt (1-5, 0-3), the running back question now has three answers. In limited but impressive action, Downing, a former walk-on, has 181 yards on 26 carries, for a team-best 7 yards per pop.
The 210-pound Rountree and 190-pound Badie liken their roles as Mizzou’s thunder and lightning. That makes Downing the tsunami. He doubles as the team’s short-yardage fullback, and whether he’s blocking or lugging the ball he invites contact as he plows through the point of attack.
“We’ve needed Dawson because he provides a heaviness,” Dooley said after Tuesday’s practice. “Last year we had (Damarea Crockett) and ‘Tree’ (Rountree) kind of banging around and then Badie would come in and do his thing. You need three backs. I’ve always felt that way in this league. It’s a physical league. One guy can’t do it. Even with two it gets hard. So it was good to see Dawson. We’re going to keep playing him.”
That never was a question for running backs coach Cornell Ford, who said Downing had the best offseason of any player in his group.
“He was the most consistent,” Ford said. “He’s earned it. It’s not a surprise for me. He did it all summer. I’ve always counted on him. He’s so disciplined and consistent with what he does. He’s not the best athlete back there, but he’s the most consistent and that that goes a long way at this position.”
“I mean, there’s no drop-off when Dawson’s in the game,” quarterback Kelly Bryant added. “He can run, he can catch, he can pass-block. Smart player.”
The Tigers averaged 5.4 yards per rushing attempt against Ole Miss, the team’s most against FBS competition this season. Dooley used an assortment of multiple tight-end packages to create running lanes for all three backs and even broke out a two-tailback formation that resulted in a 14-yard toss to Badie.
Through the first half of the season, Rountree’s production nearly mirrors his season averages from last year. He’s fifth in the league, with 557 yards rushing, and shares the lead with seven rushing touchdowns while averaging 17.2 carries and 92.8 yards per game, compared to 17.3 and 93.5 last year. Badie has expanded his role as both a runner (264 yards, two TDs) and receiver and leads all SEC running backs, with 19 catches for 210 yards.
With Downing part of the mix slugging away at defenses for a series or two, the Tigers can afford to preserve Rountree not only for the second half of games but the second half of the season. Rountree’s workload expanded in the final month of 2018, when he averaged 26 carries over the final four games.
“That’s always been our philosophy,” Ford said. “Hopefully you got more than one guy or two or three guys, and if you can get them reps that helps the (number) one and the two so in the fourth quarter you can take your best guy. It really helps Larry.”
For Downing, his role has evolved each season. He came to MU from Mission, Kan., as a walk-on in 2016, took a redshirt his first year, appeared in five games in 2017 as a backup tailback then played primarily on special teams last season. He went on scholarship shortly before the 2018 season and has since carved out a role in the running game, one broken tackle at a time.
The more the merrier.
“In the SEC you’ve got some big guys out there and guys who will be playing on Sunday,” Downing said. “So you need a bunch of fresh bodies back there and guys that you trust to put the ball in their hands.”
In Downing’s case, that trust has been earned. After their win Saturday, Mizzou coach Barry Odom said Downing is “one of the reasons that our program is moving the direction it is.” On Tuesday he elaborated.
“The way he works in the weight room, his classroom habits, the things he does in the locker room,” Odom said. “He always accepts the role that he has, and he takes coaching. 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.”