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Syracuse football 2017 report card: Running backs

There are questions, but we also have options to help things improve.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange football program went 4-8 for the third consecutive season. But since I’m not one to let anything die a peaceful death, we’re going to rehash the year anyway (while also looking forward a bit, too).

Another injury-riddled season provides plenty to ponder this offseason, and as we’re all acutely aware, there’s a high level of “what if” on Syracuse’s 2017 campaign as well. Between all of that, the difficult schedule and the Clemson win, it’s easy to dig around the results for just about any narrative you want.

We’ll choose a more optimistic view on all of it, but that doesn’t mean we’re avoiding criticism either. Looking back at 2017, we’re going position by position, to see what worked, what didn’t and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or lack thereof).

Next up...

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Florida State Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Running backs

From the start, Dino Babers has wanted this offense to be run-first. One of the major tenets of this scheme is rushing up the gut to pull the defense in, then exploiting them on the outside through the passing game.

Last year, Babers was a stickler for that approach, running smaller backs Moe Neal and Dontae Strickland up the gut despite their lack of size to really move the pile. In 2016, Syracuse averaged just 3.2 yards per carry on the ground (on 448 runs).

But this year, there was improvement all around. A few games in, the rushing attack started look a little more off-tackle and around the edges. The variance seemed to both play to the strengths of the more fleet-footed backs, and also keep defenses guessing a bit more than they had the previous season.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

For 2017, Syracuse had over 500 more yards on the ground than they did the previous year, while averaging over four yards per carry (an increase of about 0.8 yards per rush). Obviously part of that jump comes from Eric Dungey’s 300-yard increase. But you saw more explosive Strickland and Neal runs as well.

Though Strickland’s total rushing numbers went down a bit, he also missed two games. But his versatility as a receiver and his newfound ability to hit a hole and also get the edge were markedly better. For about the first 15 or 16 games of the Babers era, he was rarely the most effective rusher. He did close his season strong despite the injury, though. Whether he’s a running back or not next year, he’s proven himself as a dynamic option within this offense. He’ll get the ball in any capacity.

Despite being the smaller of the two primary running backs, Moe Neal actually proved himself the more effective every-down option during the season. Through the first nine or 10 games, the speedy sophomore played second fiddle to Strickland, then seemed to thrive as he ascended to the starting gig due to injury. He averaged over five yards per carry and hit at least 80 yards four different times. Neal also showed himself a much more effective option between the tackles -- something likely to come in handy going forward.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

All of this does ignore some additional factors, however. Chris Elmore, while used only minimally near the goal line, was a key blocker to open up the run game more on the inside. We’ll see where he fits in long-term with regard to the backfield, but as a run blocker, he’s already proven himself to have some real value.

We saw bits and pieces of Markenzy Pierre this year as well, though not enough to reach a real verdict on where he’ll fit long-term just yet. The part that complicates everything for running backs in Babers’s system is that they’re not just called upon to run, but to call out the defense as well. Pierre’s playing time going forward likely hinges on his abilities there just as much as his abilities to move the ball.

But as much as we saw more success running the ball, there were similar offensive line struggles to derail things like last year. And though they weren’t as bad as they were last year (despite Aaron Roberts’s absence), the blocking struggles did still hurt our abilities to really move the ball effectively up the middle.

How much of that is on the line, and how much of that is on talented players to account for it? Or how much of it is on the play-calling to adjust as well? Early season play-calling seemed to spite our issues on the internal line, running right at it anyway. Later play-calling appeared to understand the line’s limitations. And honestly, by the end of the year, SU was also able to move the ball more effectively inside.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Play-calling did find balance this year in terms of the run -- sometimes. And success going forward leans on more of that balance we saw in games against CMU, Miami and Wake Forest. Because as much as Babers’s previous teams passed for more yards than Syracuse has so far, they also ran more effectively, too.

Improvement was there for the Orange rushing attack this year. Though it was also inconsistent. Dungey was the team’s leading rusher, but Neal was its most effective in terms of yards per carry. SU topped 150 yards on the ground six times, though they also fell under 100 twice as well.

A truly improved SU run game sees a yards-per-carry increase once again, while probably favoring Neal over Strickland or Dungey as the primary ball-carrier. If he’s up to the task to both block better (an underrated Strickland skill) and identify those defenses, we could see a more efficient offense that also helps keep the quarterback out of harm’s way (at least more so).

Syracuse’s run game was better. But better than bad. It’s clearly headed in the right direction and will have the pieces to move forward again, though. I’ll take that for now.

Final grade: C+