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Syracuse 2018 spring football preview: Running backs

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We seeing improvement in year three?

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

Syracuse Orange football’s flipped the calendar to 2018, and that starts with spring practice. Things get started on March 3, and run through April 13 when SU hosts its spring game on a Friday night.

Back in December, we took a very early look at the potential offensive and defensive depth charts for 2018. Now, we’re digging into each position to preview what could happen this spring and how that prepares SU for a critical fall season. If you missed last week’s topic, here’s our quarterbacks preview.

Today’s topic:

Can SU’s running backs become a larger part of the offense?

Who’s on campus?

Everyone from last year’s team. Moe Neal and Dontae Strickland combined for 970 yards and five scores on the ground last season -- though neither led the team in rushing (that was Eric Dungey). Markenzy Pierre and (fullback) Chris Elmore had limited carries, but did get game experience as freshmen. Allen Stritzinger also played minimally, as did Tyrone Perkins. There’s also Oklahoma transfer Abdul Adams, who won’t be able to play for Syracuse this year but will be able to participate in spring ball.

It’s unlikely we need to dip into utilizing the walk-ons like Otto Zaccardo, Luke Erickson and Jack Guida at all at the running back position given the incoming bodies too.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Three-stars Jarveon Howard and Akeem Dixon are definitely arriving after signing earlier this month. Dixon could end up filling the much-needed role of a power back if he’s actually weighing in at 235 pounds he’s currently listed at on 247Sports. Howard’s build is more similar to Markenzy Pierre’s save a few pounds.

There’s a chance that Jawhar Jordan also joins the group this summer if he gets things straightened out academically. Having three incoming freshmen would be a crowded backfield, but we’d figure it out.

Who’s this year’s starter?

Strickland was last year until his injury, then Moe Neal took over late and ended up finishing second on the team in rushing with 488 yards (and an average of 5.3 yards per carry). While Neal is certainly the more effective runner and the one with more big-play ability, Strickland’s blocking and ability to call out defenses probably keeps him on top until Neal proves he can do that on an equal or greater level.

Beyond the blocking ability, there’s also further assessments of who can run between the tackles and if either potentially gets moved to wide receiver to help make up for the lack of experience out there. Strickland became far more effective last year when utilized on the edge. But that doesn’t really fit the mold of what Babers’s previous offenses have done.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Can anyone run up the middle?

There are many reasons why Syracuse’s offense hasn’t looked as proficient through two seasons as they did at Babers’s previous two stops (Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green). But chief among them might be the lack of a true interior run game for the Orange. Strickland’s taller and barely above 200 pounds. Neal’s put on nearly 15 pounds since he arrived, but is still under 185. Even if Neal has the speed to make up for the lack of size, it’s tough to put a smaller back like that through constant between-the-tackles pounding.

There are other options too, but it’s hard to have short-yardage specialists without giving something away, and even tougher when operating an up-tempo offense since you need to make substitutions. If Syracuse exercises its other options, you’ll potentially see a bigger dose of Pierre and/or Elmore. For Elmore, you saw glimpses of his short-yardage potential. I’m just not sure it translates to anything more than a specialty. Pierre could at least provide versatility to use him in whatever capacity is needed.

How much more will the Orange carry the ball from the running back position?

When talking about the quarterback position last week, we mentioned that Dungey’s carries probably needed to drop from somewhere around 140 last year, down to something in the 80s or 90s (at most). But is that just a simple reallocation of carries from the QB to running back? Or does this team really need to run more?

They may be forced to, honestly, given the inexperience at receiver. And the offensive line did seem to show itself up to the task by about the mid-way point last year. With Aaron Roberts back from injury and everyone else returning, there’s a real chance SU could lean on the run more if they so choose.

While at Bowling Green, Babers’s play-calling was much closer to 50-50 in terms of run vs. pass. At Syracuse, it looks like 55/45, but even that’s misleading. As I usually break down in the play-calling articles, it’s worth differentiating called runs vs. called passes given Dungey’s tendency to take off. That drives this up around 60/40 in terms of pass, or potentially higher. This could be the year things finally course-correct (especially with Lynch being the sole offensive coordinator, given his focus on O-line).

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Where does Tyrone Perkins fit in?

It’s been tough trying to fit Perkins in since day one, and this year’s no different. SU has tried it before, but the play to keep him involved may actually be at wide receiver. Still, if Perkins happens to be better at calling out defensive schemes and blocking than any of the younger players, maybe he finally gets his shot.

Could any freshmen see playing time?

As mentioned, Dixon appears to have the build to differentiate himself. However, not having the time to learn the playbook and practice with the team in spring could harm his chances of getting in and contributing as a power back right away. We’ll have to wait and see what SU has between the tackles in spring to see if there’s an opening for him right now, too.

Howard has upside, but is also slightly redundant of the backs currently on the roster (Strickland, Perkins, maybe Pierre). Space opens up in 2019 when the running backs get a bit of a reset with Neal as the lone elder statesman.