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ACC football 2018 position preview: Running backs

Unfortunately for the Orange, there are quite a few better rushing attacks than ours in this league.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange haven’t produced a 1,000-yard rusher since Doug Marrone was roaming the sidelines. And while we wouldn’t necessarily expect that trend to change this season, it doesn’t need to for the Orange to find success. SU simply needs more production out of traditional running backs like Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal, which should make the passing game a bit less predictable — as well as take some pressure off of Eric Dungey. This has been a hallmark of past Dino Babers offenses, so a more efficient run game likely goes a long way toward team success... or at least we can hope as much.

Along with our Syracuse position group previews each week, we’ll also take a look at the rest of the ACC’s respective situations. Which teams are in the best shape? And the worst? And how does Syracuse stack up comparatively? Today:

ACC Football 2018 Running Backs Preview

Last year’s top performers

Just four ACC running backs accumulated over 1,000 yards or more on the ground in 2017: A.J. Dillon (Boston College), Nyheim Hines (NC State), KirVonte Benson (Georgia Tech) and Cam Akers (Florida State). Dillon’s the name everyone knows, and for good reason. He was an absolute workhorse last year with 300 carries and topped 140 yards in six of the final seven games — and 200 yards twice.

The rest were still very effective in their own right, however. Hines averaged 5.64 yards per carry and displayed a nose for the end zone with 12 touchdowns. Benson was clearly going to rack up yards in Tech’s offense, but averaging over five yards per carry makes that much easier to do on less work. And of course, Akers showed he was well worth the hype as a freshman, topping the 1,000-yard mark and proving to be a home run threat.

NCAA Football: Florida State Spring Game Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Who will excel in 2018?

You’ll see plenty of the same names this time around. Akers and Dillon are both contenders for all-conference honors and perhaps more — you’ll likely see Dillon get some nods as one of the top backs in the country, too. Clemson’s Travis Etienne may not have hit the 1,000-yard plateau last season, but he did average 7.16 yards per carry while also scoring 13 touchdowns, so expect to see his name atop conference leaderboards this season as well.

With Wake Forest replacing starting QB and rushing threat John Wolford, the Deacons may be more dependent on senior running back Matt Colburn, who amassed over 900 yards in 2017. Also, Benson returns for Georgia Tech, as does Travis Homer for Miami. Homer won’t be alone in that backfield either, as Deejay Dallas showed some flashes in limited duty last year and five-star frosh Lorenzo Lingard could also get some opportunities.

Top three units: 1. Florida State, 2. Miami, 3. Clemson

One back doesn’t make a whole unit, which is the only reason BC isn’t here (I have them fourth just the same). At FSU, Akers is the lead rusher, but you’ll still see plenty of action for veterans Jacques Patrick and Amir Rasul. The three players combined for nearly 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns last year and figure to be a larger part of Willie Taggart’s offense than they were under Jimbo Fisher.

I mentioned Miami above, but it’s worth repeating how good that group is. Homer, Dallas and Lingard are all around the same build (5-foot-11, 200 pounds) and all have nice burst. Stopping one of them still leaves two more to potentially plan for, which is incredibly daunting. Clemson’s run game could’ve probably gotten them a win over Syracuse last year if they’d stuck to it. Nonetheless, Etienne returns, as does Tavien Feaster, Adam Choice and Darien Rencher. The Tigers’ O-line is good enough to get production out of any of them.

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

Bottom three units: 12. NC State, 13. Syracuse, 14. Louisville

State has its hands full this year, replacing two of its top three rushers in Hines and Jaylen Samuels. Reggie Gallaspy picked up 506 yards and seven scores last season, but we’ll see if he can carry the majority of the load now that the spotlight’s primarily on him (also, he only averaged 4.4 yards per carry).

Syracuse doesn’t have the excuse of losing anyone — the running game just hasn’t performed of late, though there were signs of improvement at points last season, as the team rushed for over 160 yards per game and both Strickland and Neal show promise here and there. Louisville’s run game has relied on Lamar Jackson setting the table in recent years, so we’ll see what happens without him. The top returning rusher is Dae Williams, with just 235 yards last year.

Top five running backs in ACC:

  1. A.J. Dillon, Boston College
  2. Cam Akers, Florida State
  3. Travis Etienne, Clemson
  4. KirVonte Benson, Georgia Tech
  5. Travis Homer, Miami
NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Where does Syracuse rank?

As mentioned, the Orange are pretty low at No. 13 (hooray, not last!), and that’s to be expected from a team that finished 99th in rushing success rate last year according to Bill Connelly. Neither Strickland nor Neal have exhibited a ton of ability to break through the middle of the line, which is what this scheme calls for. Perhaps that creates an opportunity for Markenzy Pierre or freshman Akeem Dixon. But more likely, we’ll be betting on the upperclassmen improving (which they may be able to do with what should be a better O-line in front of them).