When Larry Rountree III stepped onto the field for the Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve, people quickly noticed something was wrong. The name on the back of his jersey read “Routree,” missing the “n” in his last name.

If you head into the comments section on Mizzou articles when Rountree is mentioned, even many Tiger fans misspell his name, calling him “Larry Roundtree.”

That’s not surprising. Even though he ran for 1,216 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2018, he’s still a relative unknown outside of Columbia. As the Tigers get ready for the 2019 home opener Saturday, it’s time to get to know their No. 1 running back.

Humble beginnings

Rountree got a later start than most players when it came to getting on college recruiters’ radars. Rountree attended Millbrook High School in Raleigh, N.C., where he had to wait his turn to play varsity.

While playing only on JV his freshman and sophomore years, Rountree watched as Marcus Marshall handled the load for Millbrook.

“That was my idol in high school, man,” Rountree told Saturday Down South about Marcus Marshall. “I’d come to varsity games and he’d score like 5 touchdowns. That was my guy. I wanted to be like him. I’d see him out there killing people, getting first downs, touchdowns, all that.

“I just wanted to be like him and play hard and be the guy who carried the load. We’d just give him the ball and he’d get what we needed to get. He had 32 touchdowns his senior year and 2,000-some yards.”

Marshall’s older brother, Keith, also had an outstanding career at Millbrook before heading off to Georgia, where he became a star. He then played a couple of years in the NFL with the Washington Redskins, before injuries cut his career short.

Though Rountree considered Marcus “like a brother” to him, he still wanted to erase the younger Marshall’s name from the Millbrook record books when it was his turn to start for the varsity.

“Larry always had a chip on his shoulder,” Marcus told SDS. “It was three pretty good running backs who came out back-to-back-to-back from Millbrook. He always told me he wanted to break my records and be better than me.”

Indeed, Rountree remembers his gaudy high school numbers, making sure he adds the caveat that his production came over the course of 2 years, not 4.

“I finished third in rushing at Millbrook, but I didn’t play varsity for 3 years (like Marcus),” he said. “He played varsity 3 years. His brother played 4 years. His brother has 4,000-some yards. I finished with 3,316 yards and rushed for 1,900 my junior year.”

Was it that lack of longevity at the varsity level that kept big-time college recruiters away? Rountree only had 4 Division I offers coming out of Millbrook, according to his 247Sports recruiting profile — Boston College, Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio) and, of course, Mizzou. So, why Mizzou?

“I just felt the trust and honesty,” he said. “It’s a blessing that I’m here. I had put in a lot of hard work and dedication and sacrifice to get here. … I was a late bloomer.”

Numbers don’t lie

Mizzou fans are happy to have him around. As a true freshman in 2017, he burst onto the scene with 703 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns. He followed with 1,216 yards and 11 scores last year.

Still, when it comes to talking about the top running backs in the country, Rountree is hardly mentioned. Even here at Saturday Down South, national columnist Connor O’Gara didn’t have Rountree listed in the Top 25 of his 2019 running back rankings.

Rountree said he doesn’t pay attention to that sort of talk. However, he did add that he thinks his stats speak for themselves.

“Honestly, I don’t even think of the individual stuff like that,” he said. “I just play for my teammates and all the other stuff will sort itself out. At the end of the day, my play speaks for itself. If I’m not nationally ranked or whatever, that doesn’t matter. But numbers don’t lie.”

Indeed, they don’t. Rountree’s 5.4 yards per carry from 2018 ranks 4th among returning SEC running backs with at least 150 carries last year (behind Ke’Shawn Vaughn, D’Andre Swift and Scottie Phillips). His 225 carries ranked 4th in the SEC last year, too, and No. 1 among returning players. So, in addition to providing explosive plays, he’s also durable enough to handle a full workload.

Though he still hasn’t commanded much national attention, that could change this fall. At SEC Media Days this year, SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy had some nice things to say about the Mizzou back.

“Larry Rountree should be on everyone’s radar, especially with the way he finished the season,” McElroy said. “He looked great in the Liberty Bowl.”

Rountree is team-oriented, but the way the Tigers are going to erase the sting of a Week 1 loss and rise in national prominence is if he and Clemson graduate transfer QB Kelly Bryant form a dynamic duo in the Mizzou backfield. Rountree takes his part in that equation very seriously.

Student of the game

Rountree loves the game, and spends a lot of time breaking down film of other running backs. In addition to some of today’s greats, he likes to watch old school guys.

When asked which backs he likes to watch most, he rattled off a list of some of the top runners from the past 70 years.

“I watch a lot of running backs,” he said. “I’ll give as many as you want. I watch old school and new school. I watch Herschel Walker. I watch Bo Jackson. I watch Tony Dorsett. Even guys like Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. Le’Veon Bell. Marshall Faulk. I just try to soak it all up like a sponge and let it all out when I play.”

As far as comparing himself to a current NFL player, though, he cites Seattle Seahawks RB Chris Carson.

“When I watch him, I do see a lot of myself,” he said. “That’s realistic. I’m not going to compare myself to Le’Veon (Bell). That’s more like (former Mizzou RB) Damarea (Crockett). Damarea has the best feet I’ve ever seen.”

Rountree’s style does seem to draw from a variety of backs, often changing in the middle of a play. Take this powerful run against Idaho in 2017:

Then there was this run against Georgia last year, which showcased his tenacity and leg strength:

Those are the types of runs Marshall likes to see. He said Rountree’s physical nature is the best part of his game.

“Personally, I like his physicality,” he said. “You can describe him as an angry runner. He’s got good vision and pretty good speed, but my favorite thing is how physical he is. He definitely makes defenders want to think twice about coming up to him — especially those guys in the secondary.”

Rountree is also shifty, elusive and fast, though, as this run from last year’s Liberty Bowl showed:

Additionally, no one is trusted more in the red zone entering 2019. Among returning SEC players, Rountree had the most touches inside the opponent’s 20-yard line:

Even off the field, Rountree takes the “running” part of running back literally, as he can often be found on the trails throughout Columbia in his free time.

“I like to go to the parks and just run,” he said. “I just like running. When I get irritated or frustrated, I just go to the park and run.”

A new era

The Tigers were Drew Lock’s team the past 4 years. The star quarterback aired it out early and often, finishing 2nd in SEC history in passing yards (12,193) and 3rd in touchdown passes (99).

In the opening game Saturday at Wyoming, the trend continued. Rountree was bottled up — 41 yards on 14 carries — but Bryant completed 31-of-48 passes for 423 yards and 2 scores. Part of that was the situation. Mizzou led 14-0 but gave up 27 unanswered points and trailed 34-17 entering the 4th quarter.

Moving forward, though, Bryant and Rountree’s legs might become the dominant force for the Mizzou offense. With talented receivers like Johnathon Johnson, Jalen Knox and Kam Scott and star TE Albert Okwuegbunam, the passing attack will still be important, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Mizzou rushing offense take a step forward. In 2018, the Tigers finished No. 5 in the SEC with 202.4 yards per game on the ground.

Add in backup RB Tyler Badie and the Tigers have a number of weapons defenses will have to account for. Rountree likes the versatility Badie brings to the ground game.

“Badie’s an all-down back,” he said. “We can put him in the slot. We can spread him out. We can put him anywhere, and that’s good. He loves being out in the slot. That’s his thing. I like him a lot.”

So, while it’s a new era as far as Mizzou’s quarterbacks and offensive philosophy go, Rountree said he’s trying to simply be a better version of the guy he’s been the past 2 seasons.

“I don’t feel like I’ve changed anything,” he said. “Every year you come in, you’re fighting for a position. I don’t get complacent or anything like that. I still work hard and try to work a little harder each year. Your spot, as Coach (Ryan) Walters says, is not earned, it’s rented. Every day, rent is due.

“It’s just learning the offense more, getting your FBI — football intelligence — up. I’m just trying to get better. There ain’t no secret. It’s just hard work. What you did last year doesn’t matter. It’s about this year.”

There’s a chance this ends up being Rountree’s last year at Mizzou, as he could enter the 2020 NFL Draft in April. If it is his last year with the Tigers, he wants to make it special.

Now, we have to address the elephant in the room (and we’re not talking about Alabama and its mascot). The Tigers are banned from postseason play and are awaiting an NCAA ruling on their appeal.

Preparing for a season under a cloud like that is something not many teams have done over the years. The appeal could go either way, so how does Rountree keep that out of his mind?

“As a team, we can’t control that. We play football,” he said. “We have a voice, but at the same time, our job is not to go up to the NCAA and talk about that stuff. Everything will play itself out. It’s all in God’s hands.”

Rountree and the Tigers will host West Virginia on Saturday morning at the Faurot Field home opener. Will the Mizzou rushing attack get back on track? Tune in to ESPN2 at 11 a.m. Central time to find out.