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Syracuse football 2018 position preview: Running backs

The run game’s been the missing piece for Dino Babers’s offense so far.

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

We’re getting closer to the 2018 Syracuse Orange football season. And that means position previews for each group on this year’s SU roster.

Each week leading up to the season, we’re profiling one group and every player that could make any sort of impact this fall. Last week, we discussed quarterbacks. This time around, we move onto:

Running backs

At Bowling Green, Dino Babers’s run game helped set up a prolific passing game. Yet at Syracuse, that just hasn’t been the case through two seasons. In 2016, the Orange averaged just 119.6 yards per game on the ground. This past season, that number went up to 161.5 (70th in the country), but it was also due in large part to the work of Eric Dungey — the team’s leading rusher. In year three, there’s still a good chance we see additional progress with an experienced offensive line. However, SU will still need its running backs to pull their own weight a bit to truly develop a consistent rushing attack.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Dontae Strickland, Senior

Barring some dramatic change in the offseason, Strickland will be your starter once again. As a junior, he could’ve potentially led the team in rushing had he played the final two games (he’d finish third with 482 yards — just 113 behind Dungey), though he also averaged just 3.77 yards per carry. His value comes from his blocking ability, which is No. 1 among all of the running backs on the roster. Strickland’s ability to call out coverage from the backfield also keeps him entrenched. One additional wrinkle that could improve his production this year is in the passing game. He caught 18 balls last year for 142 yards and two scores. Expect him to be used more in that capacity this season.

Moe Neal, Junior

The speedy Neal has continued to add weight (he’s up to 187 pounds), which helps his blocking ability, but he’s still 20 pounds shy of Strickland. That means he’s more likely to be your home run back that anything, though at least he showed glimpses of what he could do as a feature back last year. Neal had four games with double-digit carries — including the final three where he picked up at least 86 yards in each contest. Behind a better offensive line this year, we could see him find more holes between the tackles. He’ll further cut into Strickland’s snaps too if his ability to I.D. coverage improves, and/or his receiving skills continue to make strides (he had 12 catches for 170 yards in 2017).

Markenzy Pierre, Sophomore

Pierre was hot-and-cold in his freshman campaign, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry over 25 touches and only getting consistent opportunities in garbage time. At 216 pounds, he’s still the largest returning running back this team has, though. If he can hold onto the football and show progress as a blocker, Pierre could find ways to carve out a niche on third down and beyond.

Chris Elmore, Sophomore

We’ll see how much he actually touches the ball this year, as the Orange may have more pressing needs on the defensive line. But Elmore did get 23 carries for 56 yards at fullback last year and showed himself to be effective in short yardage. An improved offensive line should onl help that ability more if he gets opportunities this year.

Abdul Adams, Junior

The Oklahoma transfer didn’t get too many chances last year (that’s part of why he transferred), but it’s hard not to like what he displayed for the Sooners when he did hit the field. Adams averaged a stunning 9.2 yards on 59 carries, and his 542 rushing yards would’ve been second on the Orange last year (only to Eric Dungey). Though Adams can’t play this season, just having him on the roster could be helpful for the younger backs.

Jarveon Howard, Freshman

One of the top 40 running backs in the class of 2018, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, Howard is already enrolled at Syracuse and there’s a good chance he sees the field this year given the new redshirt rules. He’s already over 200 pounds and has enough of a pedigree with offers from Tennessee, Mississippi State and Ole Miss to think that Howard could even push for real playing time. Worst-case, we wait a year to see the potentially exciting back take snaps and compete with upperclassmen like Neal, Pierre and Adams in 2019.

Akeem Dixon, Freshman

Dixon, from Vero Beach (Fla.), had offers from Louisivlle and Purdue but chose to battle it out with what’s become a deep group of running backs for Syracuse going forward. We’ve mentioned the Orange need a power back to really help this system run, and the 235-pound Dixon would certainly qualify there. Like Howard, he’s already enrolled, so he’ll be familiar with the playbook once camp really gets rolling. if Elmore’s shifted to defense full-time, Dixon could see short-yardage action.

Otto Zaccardo, Junior

Given the glut of scholarship backs in front of him, Zaccardo’s unlikely to be getting any handoffs this year, despite potential nepotism given the natural fit for Syracuse given his first name. He’ll be a special teamer once again with a great chance to make an impact there.

Luke Erickson, (Redshirt) Freshman

Erickson’s the type of athlete that could potentially work his way into something more over time (he was a two-way player in high school and played hoops as well). Special teams is probably as far as things go for 2018, though.

Jake Guida, (Redshirt) Freshman

Guida is one of a few former quarterbacks filling other positions on the roster. And while he’s a walk-on, that could potentially get him on the field for some trickeration — if not this season, then at some point in the future. He can still impact special teams in the meantime, however.

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The last couple running back units have been rather thin, though that’s not the case this season with five eligible players at the position this year, plus Elmore potentially back at fullback once again. But despite all of those players, we still don’t have a proven answer in this backfield. Neither Neal nor Strickland topped 500 yards last year, and the latter player’s career high is still just 566 yards in 2016.

For as much as those top two are probably entrenched for 2018, they’ll also be seriously challenged for the first time under Babers this season — which is a good thing for a position that’s failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher since Jerome Smith in 2012. No individual player needs to hit that plateau for Syracuse to find success on the ground this year. But improving upon running back production only helps to both lighten the load on Dungey’s body and set up what should be a rebuilding passing attack.