Curtis Luper knows a special running back when he sees one. He knows what true toughness and determination is all about. The 57-year-old Texan spent five years in the Army after playing at Oklahoma State.
At Stillwater, he was arguably part of the most talented group of running backs in the history of college football. He was a teammate of Barry Sanders in 1988, when the future Football Hall of Famer rushed for 2,628 yards and had 3,248 all-purpose yards en route to winning the Heisman Trophy. Luper was also a classmate of another future Hall of Famer, Thurman Thomas.
Luper, however, has never seen a story like the one unfolding in his running back group right now at Missouri, which is No. 9 in the country and the surprise of the SEC. The Tigers are being led by a former running back who transferred from Division II and has surprised the rest of the conference.
Cody Schrader is a 5-foot-9, 216-pound former St. Louis non-star recruit who last week became the first running back in SEC history to rush for more than 200 yards and gain more than 100 yards receiving in a single game in a 36-7 rout of No. 13 Tennessee.
Schrader leads the SEC in rushing yards with 1,124 yards, nearly 200 more than anyone else. Last week, an NFL scout asked Luper if Mizzou’s back reminds him of anyone.
“I’ll be honest with you,” said Luper, Missouri’s running backs coach. “He’s got a little Thurman Thomas in him. He’s really tough. He is clever. He can do everything. He has a great vision. He is deceptive in the way he runs. He is decisive, faster than people believe and faster than people believe. He will make a cut and go vertical. He is built low to the ground and will pierce anyone.
“Thurman was a damn warrior. Only Thurman Thomas could play in Buffalo. They didn’t have indoor facilities (practice facilities) in the ’90s. We couldn’t live off Lake Erie. Cody is like that.”
Luper said the decision is critical for running backs in a league as athletic as the SEC: “Unless you’re (former Alabama running back turned first-round pick) Jahmyr Gibbs, you can’t sit there and hesitate and pause and make it work in this league.”
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Cody can play in the NFL. He will help a team. He can play on special teams. He covered punts last Saturday and made a tackle.”
Schrader spent four seasons at Truman State and was the 2021 Great Lakes Valley Conference Co-Offensive Player of the Year after leading Division II with 2,074 rushing yards and finishing with 24 touchdowns. In high school, he ran for 99 touchdowns and nearly 7,000 yards and set the program record for most career tackles by him.
Still, Schrader had no offers for major college football or anywhere else in Division I.
“People have a hard time saying this the right way and it’s one of those taboo things, but he’s a white running back,” Luper said. “Whether you want to say they discriminate against him or ignore him, however you want to say it, he ended up saying, ‘I want to bet on myself,’ and he kept walking toward Mizzou. He did it himself.”
Luper said Schrader was seventh on the depth chart and had a good, but not great, spring after arriving in 2022. When Schrader got a chance in the Tigers’ spring game, Luper recalled that Schrader had like eight carries in a row and got about 70 yards. He worked his way into the starting job last season and led the Tigers with 746 yards and nine touchdowns behind an inexperienced offensive line. He also had 19 receptions.
This year, Mizzou’s offensive line has improved dramatically and Schrader has become a force in the toughest conference in college football.
Schrader has continued to surprise Tiger coaches with his determination. In December, Mizzou was preparing to play Wake Forest in the Gasparilla Bowl and had a 3 pm practice on a Saturday right after Schrader graduated at 2 pm He wanted to drop out so he could attend practice, but the coaches told him to. they dissuaded that.
Still, he asked the coaches to send him the day’s practice script, and later that night, the coaches had a recruiting dinner. It was the coldest weekend of the year at the time, and one of the coaches noticed that someone dressed in full pads was alone on the field for more than an hour, going over the Tigers’ entire practice script.
Luper got a photo and sent a group text message with his seven runners with the following message: “This is why Cody Schrader beat you. He is willing to do what you guys wouldn’t even think of doing.”
Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz said he realized the coaches had something special in the first game in early October against LSU when Schrader rushed for three touchdowns and more than 100 yards.
“That Wednesday, he had injured his quadriceps and we didn’t even think he would be able to play,” Drinkwitz said. “It’s his mentality, his toughness and his talent that makes it so difficult. He is willing to risk everything. He’s a little like Adrian Peterson in the sense that he really wants to punish people.”
Luper said Schrader is the “most conscientious kid I’ve ever had.” He said it’s also the reason why, after the Tigers play SEC heavyweights like Georgia and Tennessee, he notices opposing players crossing the field after the game wanting to shake Schrader’s hand: “That respect is earned.”
(Top photo: Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)