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Syracuse football 2017 position preview: Running backs

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Things were bad last year, so it stands to reason they HAVE TO be better in 2017, right?

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

Very early Syracuse Orange opponent previews are done, so now we move onto position overviews in earnest. This is season preview season -- the official prelude to the triumphant return of college football for 2017.

Each week, we’ll be profiling one of Dino Babers’s position groups and every player that could make an impact this fall. This week, we’re discussing:

Running backs

Syracuse’s run game continued its four-year spiral downward last season, with a miserable 119.6 rush yards per game (and just 3.2 yards per carry). Keep in mind, too that the total (1,435 yards on the season) is also a bit boosted by the final game at Pitt when the team reeled off 228 yards on the ground. This is not what Babers is used to with his offenses. But with minimal changes on the offensive line and in the backfield, can it improve a lot this year?

Dontae Strickland, Junior

After sort of splitting rushing duties with Moe Neal last year, Strickland could end up being the starter this season -- at least as much as Babers will stick with just one running back. Strickland’s a slim guy (though getting a bit bigger at 207 pounds), so he’s more of your speed back. But that speed didn’t really equal gains last year since he averaged just 3.49 yards on 162 carries. It’s unlikely he’s much better on his own this year, but could be if the team can get a more reliable (bigger) short yardage back going.

Moe Neal, Sophomore

Didn’t think we’d be including Neal here again after his spring position change, but since he’s listed as a running back once again, we’ll add him (and will also put him in next week’s too). Neal was far more productive than Strickland on a per-carry basis (5.25 yards per on 68 touches), but that’s also lifted by two runs of 49 yards last season. Takes those out and he averaged closer to 3.8. He’ll get touches out of the backfield, but still expect him to be lined up at inside receiver more often than not.

Markenzy Pierre, Freshman

At this juncture, Pierre’s not much bigger than Strickland (same height, and Pierre only outweighs him by seven pounds), but still has a far different running style that’s more suited to between-the-tackles stuff. Even as a true freshman, he’s just a better option to move the pile the way Babers will typically use the run game. That part won’t be a challenge as much as the calling out coverage responsibility that falls to every running back. If he can handle that (no guarantee), you’ll see plenty of him this fall.

Tyrone Perkins, Junior

Perkins came to Syracuse as a running back, then was switched to a sort of hybrid position, then receiver last year. Now he returns to the backfield, where his talents may be best utilized. He hasn’t had many opportunities to contribute for the Orange just yet, and his skill set’s obviously a bit redundant of Strickland and Neal’s. Still, Syracuse needs more bodies to toss in on offense, and he could be one of them this fall.

Allen Stritzinger, Freshman

Possibly the sleeper of this most recent recruiting class. The athletic Michigan product was on the Wolverines’ radar until an injury cooled that pursuit. Some saw him as a defensive back out of high school, but Syracuse still liked his upside as a runner. There’s a crowded group of similar players in front of him right now, but that will work itself out soon enough. Don’t be surprise if he ends up redshirting just to create some future depth.

Chris Elmore, Freshman

Originally seen as a defensive tackle in this cycle, Elmore will start his Syracuse career on the offensive side of the football instead. As mentioned, while Pierre is a bigger back than anyone else on the roster, he’s still not huge and that could mean the team still has a need for a short-yardage option. Enter Elmore, who played some fullback in high school, and weighs 280 pounds. The Tank Package returns, and we’re all thankful for it.

Otto Zaccardo, Sophomore

The walk-on was always meant to attend SU given his name, but that’s unlikely to guarantee playing time. Injuries could call him into action, but otherwise, special teams would be the most likely spot for the Massachusetts runner for now.

Luke Erickson, Freshman

Another athletic walk-on, Erickson was injured during his senior campaign but put up enough numbers (1,318 yards, 15 TD) as a junior at Greene High School in Greene, N.Y. to show he’s a capable ball-carrier. We’ll see what comes of his addition to the roster down the road.

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

As mentioned, not much changes for the Orange backfield this year. Most of the same pieces are back (sans the less-utilized Jordan Fredericks), plus some newer ones that could pay immediate dividends. However, one still has to think that the run game’s success is less in these players’ hands than it is the offensive line’s.

But no matter who’s responsible for improvement, it is a necessity for this offense to function properly. Without any semblance of a run game, Syracuse was a top-40ish offense (again, a departure from Babers’s typical teams). With just a moderate jump in the ground game’s production -- say, to top-90 -- that could pay huge dividends for how well SU can move the ball (and put far more points on the board).