COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri running backs coach Curtis Luper isn’t worried.
But then again, why would he be? Some early uncertainty and a shred of change worked out grand for his group last season.
Like many of the other assistant coaches at MU this season, Luper is faced with a battle in his position group, and he will soon have a decision to make: pick a single successor to one of the Tigers’ all-time tailbacks or let a group split the reps.
Who lines up in the backfield when Missouri opens its season against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 1 is anybody’s guess. With record-setting rusher Tyler Badie — who had to win the job this time last year after Larry Rountree III departed for the NFL — now a Baltimore Raven, a garrison of would-be workhorses have arrived on campus with an eye on the vacant job.
The leading candidates vying for the role are incoming transfers Nathaniel Peat and Cody Schrader; true freshman Tavorus Jones; and returners Michael Cox and Elijah Young.
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Come one, or come all?
“We were in a similar position last year, when the question was asked, ‘Who would replace Larry Rountree?’ And Tyler Badie said, ‘I’ll do it,’” Luper said. “The guys have got to step up, and we’ve got 30 carries a game that are available, and I think we started that process back in January. Down in the weight room in the offseason. It’s been an eight-month process, and it will continue for the next month.
“We’re not opposed to running back by committee, and we’re not opposed to someone taking it and doing what Tyler did last year.”
Badie put up numbers unseen in an MU uniform — a program-high 1,604 rushing yards over the regular season, which included five 200-yard outings and 14 touchdowns. He also amassed 330 receiving yards for a further four scores.
But Luper doesn’t want anyone in the new crew to compare himself to the All-SEC talent, though.
“Be yourself,” he tells them, “that’s enough.”
He reckons if he has enough “yourselfs,” the Tigers can emulate those numbers with more than two legs doing the lifting.
“I’ve had four running backs have 500 yards to get to 2,000, and we’ve had where one had (2,000 yards),” Luper said. “So running back by committee? That works as well.”
Peat, a Columbia product who returned home after three seasons at Stanford, if anyone, seems to be the heir-apparent. He racked up 404 yards rushing for the Cardinal last season, which led the team, and he totaled 663 yards on kickoff returns, which led the Pac-12. Peat sat out Thursday’s practice — Tigers coach Eli Drinkwitz indicated he was dehydrated — but was expected back for Saturday’s practice following the team’s off day Friday.
Working against his bid to be a one-man band is the fact he only amassed 79 carries over the course of 2021, less than a quarter of the team’s total. Oh, and less than 30% of Badie’s 2021 workload.
But he said he has been preparing for an uptick.
“I think that was one of the main focuses of my training, preparing myself for that workload,” Peat said. “If that’s what the offense needs, then I’m definitely prepared to do that.”
Hot on Peat’s heels is Schrader, a St. Louis native who ran riot at the Division II level at Truman State last season. In 12 games, Schrader put up 2,074 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground on a leg-stiffening 300 carries on his way to D-II All-American first-team honors.
It’s no wonder that since arriving at Missouri the Lutheran South alum has made a name for himself as a hard worker. And that’s how he means to go on during the rat race.
“That’s just something that’s been instilled in me since I’ve been young,” Schrader said. “That’s just who I am as a person, it was nothing, like, no front I was putting on. I think just any underdog, you’ve got to have different ways to stand out, different ways that people notice you. ... I’m just a hard worker in general.”
Freshman Tavorus Jones didn’t run down much clock before making an impression, either. The four-star out of Texas has shown glimpses in his early work of the high-schooler who received offers from Alabama, Texas A&M and Arkansas, among others.
“You can initially tell that he’s got some suddenness to him, and some quickness,” Luper said. “So we’re excited to see what he has, what it’s like when you put the pads on, and then he can go.”
And don’t forget the returners, who each showed flashes of promise while working with the scraps left for them by Badie. Drinkwitz spoke with fondness for the players that have stayed through all three years of his tenure — players that “chose” to be Tigers, as he put it.
Might it just be one of them?
Young emerged as the early favorite for the backup gig in the early stages of the 2021 season, including a third-quarter touchdown in the Tigers’ opening-game win against Central Michigan. Now a junior, Young is the most experienced of the returning group, and somebody that Schrader said has emerged as a leading figure in the group.
Or how about Cox, who showed the most explosiveness of any second-stringer to Badie in back-to-back weeks against Southeast Missouri State and Boston College by scoring a touchdown in each game, including a 55-yarder against the Redhawks?
“Three guys played for us last year,” Luper said, including sophomore BJ Harris. “You would think they have a little upper hand because they know this system a little bit better, they played, they played in SEC games, they helped us win games, they played on special teams. The expectation is high for those three guys, as it is for everybody.”
Decisions, decisions. But Luper isn’t in any hurry. And the MU staff is sticking to its word — everyone will be taking reps with everyone throughout camp, woe unto the person trying to predict a frontrunner.
During the warm-up session in the Tigers’ first day of preseason Monday, Cox stood at the front of the running backs’ line with Young on his tail. To open the training drills, the tailbacks worked in boxes to field passes from all four QBs, who are in their own battle for the starting role. On to the next session, Schrader and presumed backup Chris Kreh were the first to grapple with some training tools. Then, as that period came to an end with the blare of an air horn, far off and away the unit went, out of view for observers and back to work with the battling quarterbacks.
Little learned all round.
The staff has a month to make their choice, and all signs suggest they plan on using it.
“We’re really deep. We’ve got six or seven guys who really had good springs, at this point we’re still in the process of determining who is going to be that guy,” Luper said. “The next 30 days will be really critical for them.”
One workhorse, or group effort?
It might not be until Sept. 1 before that becomes clear.