COLUMBIA - Russell Hansbrough's senior season began about as well as he could have expected. Until it didn't.
Hansbrough ran for 20 yards on his first carry of the season, but he suffered a sprained ankle as he was tackled out of bounds by the Southeast Missouri State defense. He missed extended periods of the Tigers' first two games and all of their third, but is listed as Missouri's starting tailback for Saturday's game at Kentucky.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Hansbrough's availability Saturday depends on how the ankle holds up this week in practice, but called him "probable."
"We're told by our medical staff that they think he's going to be ready, but we have to wait and see," Pinkel said. "Being ready and being functional is two different things."
Hansbrough said he could not play last Saturday against Connecticut because he was unable to move laterally. He also added he probably shouldn't have played the week before at Arkansas State.
"That was pretty much just my call at first," Hansbrough said of playing two weeks ago. "And then as I kept playing I couldn't really move, so they just took me out."
Hansbrough, who was not wearing a walking boot when interviewed Monday, said staying off the ankle the past week has helped noticeably. He said he wouldn't be able to estimate his chances of playing Saturday until he practiced.
Hansbrough took one carry against SEMO after being injured and ran five times against Arkansas State, averaging three yards per carry after his 20-yard burst. Unfortunately for Missouri, Hansbrough's backups haven't fared much better. Sophomore Ish Witter, senior Tyler Hunt, junior-college transfer Chase Abbington and junior Morgan Steward have gained just 200 yards on 63 carries (3.2. avg.).
"I'm just trying to keep everybody's heads up," Hansbrough said. "Especially the running backs and things like that, just making sure everybody sees their run reads and making sure I coach them up on the sidelines as well."
Missouri's offense has sputtered in its last two games, failing to reach 300 total yards in either contest and scoring just 34 points combined.
Offensive coordinator Josh Henson is eager to get Hansbrough - who rushed for 1,084 yards last season - back on the field.
"He's obviously a playmaker," Henson said. "You look all around the country, the guys that are playmakers, (if) they get hurt, there's an effect. There's that same effect when they return. We're looking forward to getting him back and we'll get him out there this week and see how he's doing."
Though center Evan Boehm, who also sprained his ankle on Missouri's first drive of the season, is wary of crediting too much of the Tigers' offensive struggles to Hansbrough's absence.
"We have to get better as a whole offense," he said. "We can't look at one guy like Russell to boost our offense. Yeah, we miss Rus, and we wish we had him last week, but at the same time we want a healthy Russell Hansbrough, and a healthy Russell Hansbrough is a dominant player. We need him back, and I think we'll get him back, and Ish has done a great job filling in and the other young running backs are doing a great job, but we still have to get better and we still have to open holes for these guys and do what the offensive line needs to do."