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'Student of history' leads Mizzou running backs into 2020

Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Missouri Tigers running back Larry Rountree III (34) enters the 2020 season sixth on Mizzou's career rushing list and has a chance to move into first under new running backs coach Curtis Luper.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – There's one position group on his football team that shouldn't worry Missouri's Eliah Drinkwitz heading into preseason camp: his running backs.

The Tigers return senior Larry Rountree III, who is sixth on the school's career rushing yards list with a strong chance to become Mizzou's most prolific running back in team history

Then there's junior Tyler Badie, a dynamic sidekick who can run, catch and block and last year led the Tigers in receptions.

Senior sledgehammer Dawson Downing is back to punish tacklers, and freshman Elijah Young is an intriguing all-purpose playmaker.

There's another important newcomer, perhaps the most celebrated and important addition to Drinkwitz's staff. Running backs coach Curtis Luper brings 25 years of experience to the program as a recruiter and coordinator. He's also, as Drinkwitz called him earlier this summer, the staff's resident "student of history."

Luper, who came to Mizzou after seven years at Texas Christian University, plays an integral role locally as Drinkwitz's point man for the team's St. Louis recruiting plan. Luper spearheads a group effort in the region that includes four other position coaches. The coronavirus and the NCAA's ensuing dead period could have complicated those efforts, but Luper and MU's coaches successfully made inroads without leaving Boone County. Six of MU's current 18 verbal commitments for the 2021 class are from the St. Louis area, including five from talent-rich programs at De Smet, East St. Louis, Lutheran North and Trinity.

"Around April 15 when the spring evaluation period would have kicked off, all of us were on the phones with coaches in St. Louis," Luper said. "We were on the phone with coaches throughout the state of Missouri and the Kansas City area. We made ourselves available and accessible and got to know as many people as we could. We did the same thing with the recruits in the state. We just fostered really good relationships."

That's been Luper's specialty as an assistant coach the last three decades at New Mexico, Oklahoma State, Auburn and TCU. A high school running back standout in Texas, Luper spent three years at Oklahoma State backing up future NFL stars Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas then passed on his final year of eligibility to join the Army. He served as an air traffic controller and spent time stationed in South Korea. In 1993 he returned home and played one more season of college football at Stephen F. Austin – at 27 years old – then launched into a coaching career.

Luper first coached with Drinkwitz at Auburn 10 years ago and reunited in December when he became one of the staff's first hires.

"He's exceeded my expectations," Luper said of Drinkwitz. "I knew him. I knew exactly what kind of person he is. He's exceeded my expectations as a head football coach, as a CEO, as a manager of men, as a manager of family."

Earlier this summer, when MU football players organized a unity march through campus that ended with 62 players registering to vote, Drinkwitz noted that Luper addressed the group of players, coaches and Mizzou administrators with a poignant message.

"He's very much a student of history and talked about becoming a more perfect union," Drinkwitz said. "Abraham Lincoln said it right: We're trying to fight to become a more perfect union. The way that we can do that is to fight for equality and to use our voice at the ballot box."

"Just making a statement, a protest, a demonstration is not enough," Luper later said. "It has to be followed up by action and continually be followed by action. Then ultimately we make change. That's where the registering to vote initiative was (raised). We thought that would be really, really good for our players. It's the backbone of a representative democracy, your freedom to choose our leaders."

Growing up, Luper didn't look far to find a role model when it came to social justice causes. His great aunt was Clara Luper, an Oklahoma school teacher and civil rights leader who organized the Oklahoma City Katz Drug Store sit-in in 1958 and led other nonviolent protests throughout the state in the 1950s and '60s. She marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and took part in both the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., and the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma, Ala., across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with late Georgia congressman John Lewis. Clara Luper died in 2011.

"She was THE civil rights leader, civil rights activist in the state of Oklahoma," Luper said. "She led sit-ins that ultimately led to integration. She was the first (Black student) admitted to the graduate history program at the University of Oklahoma in 1951. That's a long, long time ago. There were some real issues in 1951.

"That's a sense of pride there for me. It's also a sense of pride in our players."

This fall, should college football pull off a season during the pandemic, Luper's players should figure prominently into the offense. Drinkwitz's offenses have historically featured one primary running threat -- Rountree with his 2,748 career yards is among the Southeastern Conference's top lead backs – but Badie should get plenty of touches.

"They'll both be used in the passing game," Luper said. "I know Tyler is a little more elusive and probably a little bit better route-runner. There'll be times we play them both back there together and move them around and do a lot of creative things with them. They have the skill set that would lend to them being helpful to us in the passing game. So that'll be problematic for defenses."