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Syracuse football 2016 report card: Running backs

Closing strong doesn’t mean everything’s fixed, but it helps.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

While the Syracuse Orange went 4-8 for the second consecutive year, it was far from the same 4-8 the team saw in its final season under Scott Shafer. In Dino Babers’s first campaign, SU’s offense looked far more capable and the team looked more competitive overall. They also dealt with a boatload of injuries and a difficult schedule — both of which scuttled chances to improve in the win column this year.

Still, after what was an admittedly fun season, it’s worth looking back to see which units did well and which failed to, and how that impacted the Orange’s success or lack thereof.

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Running backs

Production has been on a several-year decline for Syracuse’s running backs since Jerome Smith’s departure. The five-year streak of 1,000-yard rushers ended in 2013 (though Smith came close at 914), and in the succeeding three seasons, the bar has lowered to 600 yards or so. Dontae Strickland, 2016’s leading rusher, had 566 yards this year on 162 carries (average: 3.5 yards per).

While the headlines of Dino Babers’s offensive system come from a dynamic passing game, it’s actually a run-first scheme. In his final year at Bowling Green, the team had two players top the 800-yard mark. Senior back Travis Greene collected 1,299 yards over 14 games, while junior Fred Coppel had 825. The nature of the offense’s power run-game, as you know by now, is to draw the defense in to open up screens on the outside. That works best, however, when you have a power run game.

Syracuse, decidedly, did not in 2016. The Orange run game was ranked 115th in the country in yards per game (119.58), and Strickland was the only back to top 400 yards. While freshman Moe Neal showed big-play ability and finished second on the team in rushing yards, his 357 yards on just 68 attempts were boosted by a collection of big plays. Still, there’s a lot of promise in him as a ball-carrier — even if not as a long-term option at running back, per se. The same could be said for Strickland. Both may have better long-term viability as slot receivers.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The issue wasn’t necessarily with Strickland and Neal’s abilities as players. They’re talented options that should have the ball in their hands. It was about what they could and couldn’t do given the demands of the scheme and the weakness of the banged-up offensive line in front of them.

Neal and Strickland are each under 200 pounds (Neal’s under 170), but both were tasked with running between the tackles more than 90 percent of the time. The original plan for this year may have been utilizing one-time signee Jo-El Shaw to open up holes, too. As a bigger back, Shaw was much more in the mold of power runners like Babers had used before. However, he never made it to campus. Syracuse has prioritized the position for the class of 2017 now, with three players currently committed there (Markenzy Pierre, Allen Stritzinger and BJ Daniels). All are bigger players, which should help going forward.

This year’s roster wasn’t completely devoid of stronger options inside, however. They just weren’t used. Jordan Fredericks (aka “Fat Back”) rarely saw non-garbage time snaps despite being a larger player than both Neal and Strickland. It was surprising given he was the team’s leading rusher in 2015, and was one of the country’s more explosive runners just 12 months ago. George Morris II, while similar in size to Strickland, was at least a veteran ball-carrier.

There are no guarantees using either more would’ve helped alleviate short-yardage struggles or the continual red zone issues. But given the team’s lack of production in both areas, it’s unlikely to have hurt either.

Whether you want to pin this year’s lack of running back production on player fit, the offensive line’s struggles or a combination of both, it was undeniable that the rushing attack was a missing link for SU in 2016. Things certainly turned around a little in the finale against Pitt (against a top-five rushing defense, no less). But overall, this offense will be hampered until the numbers improve from the backfield.

Final Grade: D