Running back's size raises eyebrows early in Missouri fall camp

Cornell Ford: “Right now, Ish is our leading guy. His experience, his knowledge — I feel pretty good about Ish.”

Cornell Ford has been around Missouri football for a long time — 15 years, to be exact. So, when he says the team has something they haven’t had in a long time, you listen.

After Saturday’s practice, Missouri’s third of fall camp, Ford said Damarea Crockett is that something. Crockett is a 225-pound freshman who has garnered much attention so far in fall camp. After Saturday, even coach Barry Odom spoke about the Little Rock, Arkansas, native.

“I want him on defense, and they want him on offense,” Odom said jokingly. “For three days, he’s done a lot of really good things. We knew he had some special skills, and then you get him into camp and put the ball in his hands — he’s an explosive player. Still, he has a lot to learn, but he’s got a different gear.”

Ford agreed, and although it is his first year coaching running backs — he coached cornerbacks in the 15 years prior — Ford said Crockett’s early success has been a bright spot for a group that, heading into 2016–17, is one of Missouri’s most questionable.

Along with Crockett, Ford lauded the early success and mindset of Oklahoma graduate transfer Alex Ross and said junior college signee Natereace Strong “has been doing okay.” Then there’s Ish Witter, the junior running back who shouldered the Tigers’ load last year after Russell Hansbrough’s early injury in the season opener against Southeast Missouri State.

“Right now, Ish is our leading guy. His experience, his knowledge — I feel pretty good about Ish,” Ford said. Ultimately, Ford guarantees this year’s group will be more productive than last year’s because he has “the right guys in the room to get it done.”

As was the case last year, much of the running game is dependent on the offensive line. First-year offensive line coach Glen Elarbee spoke Saturday of the group’s progressions. However, at one point in the practice, a lack of intensity propelled Elarbee to take off his bucket hat and flip a few practice equipment.

Ultimately, he said the offensive line is a “work in progress.” Odom said it’s like piecing a puzzle together.

“For one period it’s a set group, and the next it’s somebody completely different,” Odom said, pointing to the lack of depth. “I don’t think it’s wise of us to train a guy just at guard. We’ve got to have guys that are cross-trained in a lot of spots.”

For now, Elarbee said he’s been impressed with Trystan Castillo and Tre’vour Simms. Elarbee also added that Darvis Holmes “is going to be a great one day because of his athletic ability.”

As the Missouri football team gets set for fan day Sunday at 6:45 p.m., here are three other notes from Saturday’s practice:

From walk-on to scholarship

Andy Hill said moments like one in December in which he and coach Barry Odom informed Eric Laurent he’d be on scholarship are why he “does this.”

“Every year, if we have (extra) scholarships, we talk about deserving candidates and (this year) Eric was pretty easy to pick out,” Hill said. “He does everything right, and for not playing very much, he’s a great leader in that room.”

Laurent, a redshirt-senior wide receiver from Ballwin, Missouri, has taken a number of reps through three days and will play come kickoff, Odom said.

“He’s a tremendous worker who represents our program in all the ways we want him to,” Odom said. “He works extremely hard on the field and is going to play for us.”

Laughter up front

When people ask first-year Missouri defensive line coach Jackie Shipp if he was surprised at the mindset and talent level of his position group when he got to Columbia, he laughs.

“When I got here on my first day and I went and watched them work out, I was very impressed with the whole group and I was very excited,“ Shipp said Saturday afternoon as Missouri held its third practice of fall camp. “Everybody asks, did I expect this… why wouldn’t I expect this?”

In replacing longtime Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who coached under former Tigers coach Gary Pinkel, Shipp said “this mindset was to be expected.” Shipp was a first-round NFL draft pick out of Oklahoma in 1984, and on Saturday, he spoke of Mizzou’s defensive line, back when he played, saying, “they were tough then.”

Moving to Missouri from Arizona State, where he coached the previous three years, Shipp said he’s enjoying coaching guys like Charles Harris and Terry Beckner, Jr. But don’t overlook Rickey Hatley, Shipp said Saturday.

“You want him to play with more confidence — to understand what he’s doing, why he’s doing it — and when he does, he gets confident,” Shipp said. “He has all the ability in the world, so I expect big things from Rickey Hatley.”

Penton earns praise

Cornell Ford remembers sitting in Aarion Penton’s living room trying to convince him to come to Missouri “like it was yesterday.”

In comparison to E.J. Gaines, a current Los Angeles Rams cornerback whom Ford coached more than 10 years ago, Ford said the senior cornerback reminds him of Gaines “to a degree.”

“E.J. was a little bit bigger, but they have the same kind of temperament and want to and he’s very heady,” Ford said. “Some players just have that knack about him and Aarion just has that it factor.”

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