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Dontae Strickland remains underrated receiving option for Syracuse

Could the senior running back put up some surprisingly big numbers in the passing game?

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

With both Ervin Philips and Steve Ishmael graduating this past year, we know the Syracuse Orange football team will be breaking in quite a few inexperienced receivers for 2018.

Despite the attention put toward Ravian Pierce, Devin Butler and others there, though, this year’s surprising breakout player in the passing game may actually come from the backfield — in the form of Dontae Strickland.

In three years at running back, Strickland has hauled in 48 passes for 411 yards and four touchdowns. Last year, he had three catches of 20 or more yards (including a 36-yarder versus Wake Forest). He also goes into 2018 as the ACC’s active leader in receptions by a running back (17 ahead of Florida State’s Jacques Patrick).

At one point, we may have (definitely did) pine for Strickland to move to inside receiver to replace Philips, but he’s proven himself far too valuable of a blocker in the backfield, and also reads coverage schemes (a key responsibility for the position in this offense) better than any of the other current backs. Without shifting, however, there’s a chance we see him heavily involved in the screen game just the same.

Last year, he had the fifth-most catches on the team. That sort of production — and more — also isn’t unprecedented for a Dino Babers offense.

In 2014 and ‘15 at Bowling Green, running back Travis Greene was a dynamic part of the Falcons’ passing game, with 54 catches for 409 yards and three scores over the course of the two seasons. He was among the team’s top six pass-catchers both years. And even with those passing games relying heavily on receivers, as Syracuse’s has since Babers arrived, Greene’s receiving ability out of the backfield was a significant part of the team’s strategy.

Strickland hasn’t necessarily been used that way so far, but the signs of a shift did start last season. Starting against NC State, he was targeted more frequently, with two catches or more in six of the next seven games. Those passes were all to the outside, taking advantage of his speed better than just pounding him between the tackles. SU took a similar approach to running the ball with him too, to greater result. After barely averaging three yards per carry through the first five games or so, the Orange began running him more around the edge. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry against Clemson, 7.5 per against Miami and 6.6 against Wake (heavily influenced by a 43-yard scamper).

Neal may be putting up the bigger numbers in the run game on paper — something that seemed more apparent late in the year when he took over for the injured Strickland as the starting running back. But running the ball isn’t the only way Strickland can make a major impact for this offense. And if this passing game is going to pick up where it left off, the senior rusher probably plays a large part in that.