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Syracuse 2017 spring football preview: Running backs

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Things weren’t great last year, which means they’ll only get better.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

We’re flipping the calendar to 2017 for Syracuse Orange football. That starts with spring practice, which takes place from March 21 through April 22.

Last week, we looked at some early offensive and defensive depth chart projections going into 2017. Now we dig into each position to preview what happens this spring, and how that sets up the fall.

Today's topic:

Can the running back position improve from last season?

Who’s on campus?

Just two players: Junior Dontae Strickland and sophomore Moe Neal. Jordan Fredericks elected to transfer, while George Morris graduated.

That’s going to make it a bit tough to really learn anything knew about the running back position this spring. But SU can at least start to gather the information it has and put pieces in place to improve upon it.

Last year’s run game was ranked an abysmal 115th in the country, averaging just under 120 yards per contest on the ground. That number was also boosted by a well-above-average 228 yards vs. Pittsburgh on 45 carries in the finale. It was the only game the Orange averaged more than 3.75 yards per rush. They ran for less than 100 yards in four different games (and somehow won two of those).

Strickland led all ball carriers with 566 yards rushing, while Neal added 357 of his own. Neither had the size to really run between the tackles like Dino Babers’s system demands, however, so results were middling. Neal did average 5.3 yards per carry, though the number was also helped by a few 40-yard runs.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Reinforcements!

Markenzy Pierre is a three-star back from Florida who already tops 200 pounds and could be just the type of downhill runner Babers is looking for. Fellow three-star Allen Strizinger (from Michigan) possesses some size, but is definitely more on the athletic side with some burst. Both could potentially see the field in 2017 given the state of the run game last year.

Another wrinkle could be commit Chris Elmore, who flipped from Western Michigan as a nose tackle, but could end up playing some H-back/fullback for the Orange. As we know, this offense is predicated on running up the gut and pulling the defense in to open up the perimeter. With a player who’s around 270-280 pounds taking the football in select situations, that could certainly help things out.

Can last year’s problems be alleviated?

Maybe. It was the first year in a new system for Strickland, Neal and the entire offensive line, so with a year under everyone’s belt now, this whole offense should run more smoothly than it did previously.

Still, Strickland and Neal aren’t perfect fits for what the running back position really needs, and unless the offensive line grows by leaps and bounds, they’ll be stuck with three- or four-yard gains.

Pierre could help set this unit up for success, but he’ll also need to be able to accept the other roles and responsibilities of running backs on this team, too. Fredericks struggled with blocking and calling out blitzes and coverage last year. Pierre will need to be a quick study on that to get more carries early on.

Is Gus Edwards coming to SU?

At the moment, he isn’t, but that doesn’t mean he can’t before the offseason ends. The former blue-chip recruit is leaving Miami, but he’s blocked from transferring to 2017 Hurricanes opponents. That would include Syracuse, the school he was originally committed to as a recruit before Miami flipped him following Doug Marrone’s departure.

Edwards could keep pushing, and/or the public could get on UM a bit to enable him to join the Orange roster. But there are no guarantees there. Admittedly, we could certainly use him as a stopgap to help Pierre and Stritzinger develop a bit. The Staten Island native is 6-foot-1 and weighs 230 pounds.

Could Neal or Strickland switch to receiver?

It’s possible. I floated the idea in the depth chart preview post, and others have mentioned it as well. Both Neal and Strickland have experience as pass-catchers, and given their lack of size, they could potentially fare much better in the slot than in the backfield.

I’d bank on one player switching this year, and the other next, but that’s based on nothing but guesswork (and a need for experience on the second line of the wide receiver depth chart). Keep in mind that if either/both move, it would not be the first time this has happened recently. Ervin Philips, last year’s second-leading receiver, has spent two years catching the ball now after leading the Orange in rushing as a freshman.

Where would Elmore get put to work?

With a crowd at defensive tackle, it stands to reason that Elmore could get some early work at fullback, where he has previous experience, while also filling a need for Syracuse.

SU struggled to convert in the red zone last year (78.38 scoring percentage), which makes an obvious use-case for him right there. Third downs were also a problem (39.44 percent), so yeah, would expect to see quite a bit of him in short yardage situations.

After all of that, who’s the primary running back this fall?

Assume it’s a split role between Pierre and Neal, with Strickland operating in the slot. Pierre’s addition alone would make a world of difference for the offense, and open up some holes for Neal/Strickland that weren’t there last year. The freshman isn’t strictly a battering ram, but he’ll certain wear down defensive fronts more than the smaller Strickland or Neal could do in 2016. As long as the team doesn’t have to rely on Eric Dungey to move the ball on the ground, they’re headed in the right direction.

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What else do you want to see from the running back position in 2017?