Since arriving in the state of Missouri, head coach Bobby Petrino has been looking for a running back he could pass the ball about 20 times a game and make him the standout player in his backfield.
Only twice in Petrino’s 22 games as head coach has a running back carried the ball at least 20 times in a single game.
That seems to be changing.
Jacardia Wright, a transfer from Kansas State, is the back-up Petrino who was cast for the role when he recruited him this offseason.
Wright is a 6-foot-0, 220-pounder who is one of Illinois’ most decorated high school players in its history. At Kansas State, he showed potential in his three seasons but wouldn’t get many opportunities if the Wildcats have a Heisman candidate in the same position on the roster.
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Now at Missouri State, Wright has the potential to improve the Bears’ offense if she comes off one of her better seasons in school history.
“He has the ability to take a two to three yard gain and turn it into a seven or eight yard gain,” Petrino said. “The power he has and the ability to fall forward really helps you get second and short and third and short. He also has the ability to break tackles and go all the way. He has the speed to be a home run hitter.”
Wright showed that potential in the spring and early fall while scoring all of his reps with the starting offense. The bears haven’t had his size in position for a long time and he’s also someone who can catch the ball from backcourt.
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Perhaps he could be the first bear to break the top five in singles rushing at the Missouri Valley Football Conference since 2004, when Cody Pratt averaged 111.2 yards per game. No MSU running back since Chris Douglas in 2010 has surpassed 1,000 yards.
“Jacardia Wright is special,” said offensive coordinator Nick Petrino. “You’re watching him out there and he’s got everything. I expect we’ll be able to run the ball, which would really support our play-action game and throw the ball down the field.”
The Petrinos pointed out how much Wright will often help the bears in their play-action game. Bobby Petrino said in his first two years that he wanted to establish the running game to create opportunities for explosive plays on the field.
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It should also help the Bears’ offensive line as they hope to make a step forward after being one of the team’s weakest units in recent seasons. Coaches have said the offensive line is the most improved part of the team going into the season, and Wright’s presence has made it stronger.
“Jacardia is a monster,” said offensive tackle Landon Bebee. “We made a through and we had a goal-line play and he almost ran through a defender anyway. When you block for a guy like that, you want to block even harder.”
As Missouri State approaches a new season, a new look seems to be coming to what is considered one of the better offenses in FCS. The Bears have perhaps the best quarterback at the level, returning along with an All-American-level receiver.
In the case of quarterback Jason Shelley, he might be giving up the ball a little more than he was a year ago. That sounds perfectly fine to him.
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“If we let the ball run down people’s throats, I’m fine with that,” Shelley said. “We can let the ball run 400 meters and if we win I’m fine with that.”
Known name: Andrew Cunningham
Cunningham, a transfer from Iowa Central Community College who started his career at Georgia Southern, was someone who could have been the Bears’ return last fall. Those ideas ended in a season-ending injury during preseason camp.
But the 6-foot-1, 225-pound running back from Florida is back and healthy. Even with the addition of Wright, there appears to be a role for Cunningham.
“I thought he did a really good job in the spring, getting better every day in practice and showing some lightning,” said Bobby Petrino. “He’s better in our first training sessions than he was in spring. His speed, determination in cuts and his ability to catch the ball will definitely make him one of our weapons in the different ways we can use him.”
Cunningham could find a role at full-back if the Bears haven’t had a natural ball carrier at the position since Petrino took over. Players in the full-back spot have been out-of-position players for the past two seasons, including a Juco linebacker and 6-foot, 298-pound Siale Suliafu.
There will also be a role as a natural runback who can give Wright breathing space if needed.
“We’ve never had depth like this since we’ve been here,” said Nick Petrino. “It will be exciting to use all these people.”
Other influential running backs from the state of Missouri
Celdon Manning returns after missing most of the fall season with an injury. He was the Bears’ second-leading rusher of the spring 2021 season, and coaches have teased that they like packages where Manning and Wright are on the field together. He’s also one the Bears can split up as a wide receiver. We’re going to see a lot more Manning this season.
Bobby Petrino has mentioned a few times that he really likes what he sees Tywuan Lee as he enters his redshirt freshman year. He played in four games last season and carried the ball for 51 yards 11 times. A little more of Lee wouldn’t be too much of a surprise.
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist for the Springfield News-Leader. You can reach him at 417-371-6987, email at [email protected] or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. He is also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4pm to 6pm