Rountree's season similar to 2018, but Tigers need more
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Coming into this season, Larry Rountree III was the second-leading returning rusher in the Southeastern Conference. Fresh off a career-high 204 yards in a 38-33 Liberty Bowl loss to Oklahoma State, Rountree was one of Missouri's sure things.
The offseason addition of Kelly Bryant got most of the headlines and the return of Albert Okwuegbunam took the rest of them. But it was Rountree that was Missouri's best-kept secret and most consistent offensive weapon.
Rountree struggled in the opener and was benched in favor of Tyler Badie. He had 15 carries for 41 yards and a touchdown, but barely saw the field in the second half as Missouri tried to make a furious comeback from a big hole it dug in the second quarter. Last weekend at Georgia, Badie got the start, though Barry Odom revealed on Tuesday that Rountree was limited by a sprained foot during the 27-0 loss in Athens.
Nine games into his junior season--and on the heels of a three-game losing streak in which the Tiger offense has gotten progressively less productive each week--there is a perception that the Tigers' star is having a down year.
The thing is, the numbers don't really support it.
"I think coming into the season we had higher expectations," running backs coach Cornell Ford said. "We’re all looking for his numbers to be better than what they are. I too went back and looked at his numbers and was shocked at where they were because they feel like less than that. But he’s right about where he was this point last season."
Through nine games last year, Rountree had carried the ball 122 times for 666 yards and nine touchdowns. Through nine games this year, he has 139 carries for 668 yards and eight scores. The yards per carry are down (5.45 to 4.81), but he's actually had more 100-yard games this year (3) than he did in the first nine games of 2018 (2).
"We always expect more, and I don't know, I think maybe for Rountree, he hasn't had that breakout game yet that maybe we all had anticipated happening," Odom said.
While the raw numbers are the same, the yards per carry are down, as are yards after contact. He's on pace for a similar number of first down carries as he had last season as well as a similar number of runs of more than ten yards. But somehow it seems like he's been less consistent this season.
"I think that’s fair," offensive coordinator Derek Dooley said. "How are runners measured? You make yards. You make yards. There’s games when Larry’s made yards and there’s games when he hasn’t. Can we block better? Of course. We always can block better. But runners make yards."
Odom mentioned the fact that Missouri was dividing carries more as being a potential factor. Last season, Rountree often split time with Damarea Crockett. But the truth is, while Rountree is getting fewer carries per game this year (15.5 vs 17), he's actually carrying more of the load in the running game. When you look at the top three ballcarriers, Rountree had 48% of the carries a year ago while sharing the load with Crockett and Badie. This season, he has 54% of those carries while Badie and Dawson Downing have shared the other 46%. Badie is getting more carries than he got a year ago, but fewer than Crockett did. And Downing is getting fewer than Badie did in 2018.
"Tyler’s done really well for us in our passing game," Ford said. "So he’s certainly done his part. (But) he first gets paid from running the football. Those numbers aren’t quite where we want them to be so he, too, needs to pick up his game."
Perhaps it's less that Rountree is having a down year and more that the entire Missouri offense is. The Tigers are averaging two fewer rushing attempts per game than they did a year ago and about five fewer offensive plays per game. But it's also about how the Tiger offense is operating. It's easier to run when defenses have to respect your ability to throw. Missouri's passing game has seen a significant dropoff from last season.
It's not just that the Tigers are averaging about 45 fewer passing yards per game. It's how they're getting them. Badie, a running back, is Missouri's second-leading receiver. Last year, Missouri averaged 8.1 yards per pass attempt. This season, that number is 7.4. Drew Lock and his rocket arm threw 64 passes more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage last season, nearly five per game. He completed 30 of them for 1,160 yards and 14 touchdowns with just one interception. Bryant has completed only 10 passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield on 27 attempts. Those plays have gone for 321 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. A dropoff in the deep passing game should have been expected not only replacing Lock with Bryant, but also losing Emanuel Hall, who was an elite deep threat. But with that dropoff come defensive game plans that make it more difficult to run the ball.
"That makes a difference," Ford said. "Last year we had a lot of six man boxes and a lot of five man boxes. This year we’re seeing a lot of seven and eight man boxes. That means that we’ve got to be more effective passing the football. That makes it tougher running the football against people."
"They’re making it tough, whether it’s getting an extra backer in the box or extra safety coming in pre or post-snap, stopping the run," Bryant added. "The biggest thing that Coach Dooley’s been stressing to the runners and quarterbacks as well, you just got to be able to make a guy miss. That’s the biggest thing, what the good ones do."
That's what Ford is focused on. He says Missouri has "left yards on the field." Part of that is the offensive line.
"You go back and you watch it on film, it’s like, ah, if you would have just got your hat literally six inches right here, oh, this run is going to go," center Trystan Colon-Castillo said. "That’s been one of the things that sucks, because you come in and you watch it on Sunday, it’s like you’re one block away from hitting a big run or turning a two or three yard run into an eight yard run.”
But not every play is blocked perfectly. As Bryant said, the elite runners make a man miss. But even in that regard, Rountree isn't far off where he was a year ago. According to PFF College, he has avoided 29 tackles on 140 attempts this year. Last season, he avoided 41 on 225 attempts. It's actually a higher ratio this year, although his yards after contact have dropped from 3.39 to 3.15.
"We’re not that far off but we’ve still got to get things done," Ford said. "Larry’s got to be more competitive. I think we’ve left yards on the field at times in one on one type situations. I expect him, we expect him to be more physical and more competitive in those situations."
One thing you don't see in this story is Rountree's opinion on it all. A frequent go-to interview for reporters in his first two years on campus, he's opted out of interviews much of his junior season. He has rarely stopped to speak when requested at Missouri's Tuesday media days and hasn't done post-game interviews after the last two losses. But Missouri's coaches insist there has been no change in the demeanor of one of the Tigers' locker room leaders and captains.
"He's kind of the guy now," Odom said. "He hasn't been that yet. And, you know, he's taken the ownership of that. Early on in the year I think he was pressing a little too much. And, you know, finally is kind of settled in and just, just be Larry.
"I feel comfortable with the way that he's approaching each game and the things that he's doing to help us."
"He’s never been sour," Ford said. "He’s not one that gets up and points at people and says you didn’t do this. Larry’s never been that. His consistency, his preparation has always been the same."
"He’s a great team guy, he’s a great human being, he’s a great competitor," Dooley added. "Love him. Love Larry Rountree."
Rountree's sophomore season was solid through nine games. It didn't become special until the final four. WIth Crockett injured, Rountree took over the lead role and averaged 25.75 carries for 137.5 yards over Mizzou's final four games a year ago. That spurt vaulted him all the way to fifth on the Tigers' single-season rushing chart. Odom knows if Missouri is going to pull out of its recent tailspin, it's going to need a similar finish from Rountree.
"Hopefully we'll get that here down the stretch, because we're going to need more," Odom said. "We'll have to lean on him a little bit more than we have."