Matter’s Mizzou camp countdown: Tailback battle twice as nice

July 31, 2018 GMT

COLUMBIA, MO. • Congratulations, Mizzou fans. You’ve almost survived a full football offseason. Camp week is here with the first practice set for Friday. Until then, we’ll continue our dive into the most important players for the 2018 Tigers, looking the next five days at the offense.

We start with what could become a double feature at tailback, the return of a healthy Damarea Crockett plus the emerging Larry Rountree III.

For now, they’re listed as co-starters. They’ve both been part of backfield timeshares, Crockett with Ish Witter in 2016 and the first month of 2017 and Rountree with Witter for the second half of 2017, after Crockett was lost with a shoulder injury. Now, with Witter out of eligibility, Crockett (5-11, 225 pounds) and Rountree (5-10, 210) will compete for carries and, in some yet-to-be-determined ratio, will share those carries for what could be one of the best tandems in the SEC.

What do the Tigers have in these two backs? Both run the ball with power. Both are fast enough to pull away from a pack of defenders. Both have taken turns returning kickoffs. Both have annihilated Tennessee, Crockett for 225 yards in 2016 and Rountree for 155 last year.

During his 1,000-yard freshman season, Crockett averaged 6 yards per carry in five games, including monstrous back-to-back games against Vanderbilt and Tennessee, when he logged 44 carries for 379 yards. Rountree averaged 8 yards per carry in four games last year.

Third-year coach Barry Odom has high expectations for both. Crockett eased back into live contact drills during spring practices but should be fully healthy for the start of practices.

“The transformation (Crockett) has had … from the time he came back going through winter conditioning, spring practice, and now his summer development, he’s as good as I’ve seen Damarea look,” Odom said at SEC media days. “He’s really healthy. He’s gained an extra step. To me, quickness and being able to put his foot on the ground and get north and south, the vision part of it is coming together with some power and explosiveness. I think he’s got a chance to be a really good back in this league.”

“Both of those guys at that spot with our offensive line, that’s one challenge we’ve got as a staff,” Odom added. “We have to be creative enough and find ways to run the football. We have two backs like that who we’ll have a chance to be able to draw up some things that we think can be an advantage for us, because those guys have got the ability to be really good backs in this league.”

The workload is the big question. Who starts between the two? Who gets more carries? Who’s the choice in the fourth quarter in a competitive game? Who gets the call on third-and-2? Based on their bodies of work, there doesn’t appear to be a wrong answer to any of the above questions.

Is a tailback tandem important for winning? Since the SEC expanded to 14 teams in 2012, 10 SEC teams have had two running backs average at least a dozen carries per game, including two Missouri teams, in 2014 (Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy) and 2016 (Crockett and Hansbrough).

Alabama’s had two high-volume tandems since 2012: T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy in 2012 and Yeldon and Derrick Henry in 2014. Last year, zero SEC teams had two backs average 12 carries per game. In 2016, there were four. Is a busy two-back tandem the sign of a great team in the SEC? Not necessarily.

Of the 10 teams with two 12-carry-a-game backs, only three won double-digit games: 2012 Alabama, 2014 Alabama, 2014 Missouri. Another four won seven or eight games: 2014 Arkansas, 2016 Auburn, 2016 Kentucky and 2016 Georgia. Another three had losing records: 2013 Arkansas, 2013 Florida and 2016 Missouri.

There’s a shortage of established star running backs in the SEC, as just five return who have logged a 1,000-yard rushing season. Are there enough carries to go around for Crockett to hit four digits again this fall? Can Rountree get enough touches to join the list? Either way, it’s a luxury to have that kind of 1-2 punch, perhaps MU’s best in the backfield since that 2014 season.

Camp countdown previews:

Young safety Bledsoe gets his shot

Garrett, Hall give Tigers inside punch

Walters steps into spotlight as defensive coordinator

Beckner braced for strong finale

Who emerges as MU’s next great edge rusher?

Matter answers readers’ questions