Witter is ready to shoulder the load at running back spot for Missouri football

In the 2015–16 season, Witter ran for 518 yards and one touchdown in 12 games played.
Junior running back Ish Witter gets tackled in the middle of a pile during the annual spring football game on April 16.

Russell Hansbrough was supposed to man the backfield for Missouri last year, not Ish Witter.

Fresh off a 1,084-yard, 10-touchdown and 5.3 yards-per-rush 2014–15 campaign, the former Missouri running back in Hansbrough was bigger, faster — every cliche in the book and was supposed to have a stellar senior season. But in the first series of the year against Southeast Missouri State and on his first carry, Hansbrough injured his leg on a 20-yard first down run, leading to a disappointing year and a heavy workload that then-sophomore running back Witter would have to carry.

The 5-foot-10, 190-pound running back wasn’t ready. Looking back, Witter has admitted that. In 12 games played, Witter ran for 518 yards and scored just one touchdown. He lacked the strength necessary to be an every-down back. He lacked power to burst through tackles. But even more than that, he lacked the confidence it takes to be the starting running back for a football team in the Southeastern Conference.

A year and an offseason later, Witter seems to have done a complete 180.

“I think he, maybe as much as anybody on the offensive side of the ball, has transformed his body in January, February and March,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said after Saturday’s spring game. “Because of that, he’s competed in a much more confident fashion as we’ve progressed through spring ball.”

In front of 24,473 fans on Saturday at Faurot Field, Witter’s performance was impressive. He carried the ball 13 times and ran for 45 yards. Even so, those numbers that don't come close to reflecting his performance.

Instead of jumping outside the tackles, he cut inside and broke tackles. On 3-yard runs, he wasn’t avoiding contact. And his versatility in the passing game — catching three passes for 33 yards, the second-highest receiving total in the spring game — was welcomed.

Prior to the spring, coach Barry Odom advised the running back group, and Witter specifically, to get bigger and stronger for obvious reasons.

Heading into the summer and fall, the Tampa, Florida, native has taken that to heart.

“To sum it up a little bit, I’ve tried to get more muscle than fat and I feel good and quicker,” Witter said. “I just have to work harder. I’m the No. 1 back now, so it definitely is a bigger change. I’m not saying I was trying to avoid contact last year, but I’ve needed to work on my balance so that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Being the No. 1 back isn’t a foregone conclusion. Witter will compete against two incoming running back recruits, Natereace Strong and Damarea Crockett.

Strong, who stands at 6-foot-1 and comes from Hinds Community College, was ranked No. 15 in the nation (and the No. 2 running back) among junior college recruits. Crockett is a 6-foot Little Rock, Arkansas, native who guided his high school team to a state runner-up mark as a senior rushing for more than 1,400 yards and 20 touchdowns.

And as much as he recognizes they’ll have the advantage of a fresh start, Heupel has watched Witter’s progression and seen his confidence grow.

“I think he saw himself doing things (this spring) that he physically maybe could not or wouldn’t do a year ago and he’s starting to make very good, decisive, fast vertical cuts,” Heupel said. “He’s running with a great physical presence, finishing runs and gaining an extra yard or two. I like the direction that he’s really taken his game.”

As Witter attempts to proceed in that direction, the questions at the running back spot for Mizzou will remain. A year later, though, means a year stronger and a year more confident — attributes that will bode very well in Witter’s hopes of shouldering the rushing load for Missouri.

Edited by Katherine Knott | kknott@themaneater.com

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