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Crockett ready to explode as Mizzou’s featured back

July 29, 2017 GMT

COLUMBIA, Mo. • It might take more than a record-setting 1,000-yard season for Missouri running back Damarea Crockett to earn recognition around Southeastern Conference press boxes, but he’s sure to receive plenty of attention from opposing defenses this fall.

A year ago, Crockett set multiple Mizzou freshman rushing records despite being a major piece of the offense in only 10 games. He touched the ball just twice in a season-opening loss at West Virginia and was suspended for the finale against Arkansas. Otherwise, he ran for 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns, both team records for a freshman running back. He finished the season fifth in the SEC among running backs in rushing (96.6 yards per game) and was even better in conference games (102.7). Louisiana State’s Derrius Guice was the only SEC running back who averaged more yards per carry in SEC action than Crockett’s 7.3. Among running backs in the five power conferences, Crockett’s average ranked No. 6. The rookie from Little Rock, Ark., proved to be one of the SEC’s best big-play threats. Guice was the only SEC back with more 10-yard runs than Crockett’s 35, and only Guice and Kentucky’s Stanley Williams had more 20-yard runs than Crockett’s 14.

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Still, when the media’s preseason All-SEC teams were released two weeks ago, Crockett was not one of the six backs named to the first, second and third teams.

Preseason slights by the SEC press corps don’t diminish Mizzou’s expectations for Crockett, now a sophomore, now weighing in the 230s, now poised for more carries and a better season.

“I think he can be one of the top backs around,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said.

Unlike last season, when Ish Witter opened the season as the starter, Odom’s offensive staff won’t need a few weeks to expand Crockett’s workload. When the Tigers kick off Sept. 2 against Missouri State, Crockett figures to be the undisputed featured back.

“We got to find ways creatively to get him the ball because I think he’s got a chance to be a game-changing player,” Odom said. “So his role will grow. It’s also important that the two or three other tailbacks that we’ve got, that they continue (to progress), because everybody’s going to play at that spot. But Damarea’s got to be ready to carry the load for us offensively in the run game.”

Crockett’s season ended a week sooner than expected when Odom suspended him for the final game after he was arrested for marijuana possession just hours after the team returned home from a loss at Tennessee, where Crockett had just rushed for an MU freshman record 225 yards.

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Crockett served his one-week suspension and Odom has since shown faith in the sophomore to develop into a leader. This summer, Crockett was one of five Mizzou athletes selected to attend an SEC leadership conference in Birmingham, Ala., along with basketball players Terrence Phillips and Jordan Frericks, wrestler Chase Brennan and softball player Rylee Pierce.

“He’s a mature kid,” Odom said. “He understands the importance of what we’re putting on that position. He knows he’s got the skills to go do it. So he’s got some confidence about the way he can play. … He handled the end of the year with an incident that happened the week of the Arkansas game, handled it very well, very mature, and has learned lessons as our team has on some of the situations that went down with that.”

Witter will still carry a role this fall. A sure-handed north-south runner, Witter quietly ran for 750 yards last fall, blistered Tennessee for 163 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 5.3 yards on first-down carries. He’s not a runaway threat like Crockett — Witter had only two 20-yard runs on 162 carries — but he’ll remain a staple in the running game. Pro Football Focus rated Witter the best pass-blocking halfback in the SEC and among the four best in the power conferences.

A handful of candidates will push for whatever carries are left. Nate Strong (East St. Louis) filled in for Crockett against Arkansas with 52 yards and two touchdowns but was suspended for most of the spring. Freshman Isaiah Miller enrolled early and got some first-team work during the final spring scrimmage, along with walk-on Dawson Downing. Freshman Larry Rountree II joined the team this summer and could push for a role.

No matter how the depth sorts, there’s no debate about the backfield’s No. 1 option. Crockett didn’t earn preseason SEC recognition, but his goals transcend conference honors. At SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., quarterback Drew Lock said Crockett has one word written all over the inside of his locker: Heisman.

STADIUM VOTE

Mizzou athletics director Jim Sterk initially hoped the University of Missouri System Board of Curators would vote to approve MU’s proposed football facility during Friday’s teleconference meeting, but the south end zone complex was not on the meeting’s agenda. Instead, the athletics department anticipates submitting its proposal to the board before the end of the summer, department spokesman Nick Joos confirmed.

The project, estimated to cost close to $100 million, is still on track to be completed in time for the 2019 season, pending board approval. In the meantime, Mizzou is working with the project’s construction manager to shore up the facility’s total cost, Joos said, and refining its funding model to cover the project. As of late June, Mizzou athletics had raised $49 million for the project. Revenue bonds financed through the university will cover the balance of the costs.

RUNNING BACK AT A GLANCE

Departed from 2016

Alex Ross

Presesaon depth chart

Damarea Crockett, So., 5-11, 225

Ish Witter, Sr., 5-10, 195

Backup options

Nate Strong, Jr., 6-0, 210

Dawson Downing, RsFr., 6-0, 225

Isaiah Miller, Fr., 5-11, 195

Larry Rountree II, Fr., 5-10, 183

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