COLUMBIA, Mo. – After cutting a 51-yard path through Murray State's defense, Russell Hansbrough wanted to play it cool. He exchanged a few hugs with teammates in the end zone, then jogged back to the sideline to receive some more.
He had scored only his second career touchdown, but there was no need for theatrics — his first score came just three minutes earlier.
That's not to say he didn't want to celebrate.
"I was just really happy," the Missouri running said. "It was a monkey off my back."
Hansbrough rushed eight times for 104 yards and was essentially done by halftime, a sign of his new role with the Tigers (1-0). Talking to him, one can sense his optimism for the season ahead, borne from an eagerness to move on from a haphazard freshman year in which his confidence admittedly wavered.
Having added some brawn this past offseason, Hansbrough is listed at 5-foot-9, 190-pounds, nearly identical to teammates Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy. Their similar stature and background — all three are from Texas — convinced Hansbrough to switch his commitment from Arizona State to Missouri after the Sun Devils fired coach Dennis Erickson following the 2011 season.
"Like I told him, 'Boy, you look like a younger me when I first got here,'" Josey said.
But all was not rosy for Hansbrough in his first season. He rushed 37 times for 136 yards, only 32 more than he gained in Saturday's opener alone. His most notable play was one he'd rather forget, one that he says still motivates him today.
With less than three minutes left in a 42-10 loss to Alabama, a defender picked Hansbrough clean off the turf and threw him onto the ground back first. Officials whistled LaMichael Fanning for unsportsmanlike conduct, but that mattered little to Hansbrough, who stayed in the game.
"No one wants that to happen to them," he said.
Nevertheless, Hansbrough is thankful he didn't redshirt, as he got a chance to experience the pace of play in the Southeastern Conference. He still works with coaches on blocking for pass protection and understanding various offensive schemes, but he says he's come a long way.
"The experience of being in the arena and getting out and playing, it's something that every player has to go through," coach Gary Pinkel said. "So often here — we can list the athletes since we've been here — all of a sudden they play pretty good, all of a sudden the same athlete the next year is playing at a whole different level."
Now a sophomore, Hansbrough is part of a three-man tailback rotation for Missouri in its second year in the SEC. But while Josey is known for an all-Big 12 season in 2011 and Murphy for returning a school-record four kicks last year, the spotlight has yet to reach Hansbrough.
And he's perfectly OK with that, saying he'd rather concentrate on helping the team in any way he can.
"I think there's a side of Russell that he doesn't really show to anybody," running backs coach Brian Jones said. "Russell, yeah, he is a quiet guy. Around us, he's actually 'Yes, sir. No, sir.' Very respectful. He's a joy to have and I think he's got a really bright future. He really does."
The Tigers rushed for 358 yards against Murray State, but now look to maintain the momentum against Toledo (0-1) and later in the SEC, where they finished tied for 13th in rushing yards per game and tied for last in yards per carry last year. Having three healthy tailbacks, including Hansbrough, will help.
"I'm really excited for him and I hope he keeps pushing me like he has done," Josey said. "I told him we've got a great tandem going together. It's just going to be a great year for us."