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Syracuse football 2018 report card: Running backs

We almost forgot what a (fairly) capable running game looks like.

NCAA Football: Camping World Bowl-West Virginia vs Syracuse Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange football program finished 10-3 in 2018 — the first time SU’s done as much since 2001. So while these postseason reviews typically end up skewing toward what went wrong, hopefully this is the first of many seasons in a row where we get to happily recap what went very right.

Despite winning 10 games, though, it’s not as if things were perfect. These “report cards” serve as an assessment of both good and bad. Looking back at the past season, we’re going position by position, to see what worked, what didn’t and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or in rare cases, lack thereof). Hopefully you enjoy. And why wouldn’t you? We have a top-25 team to root for again.

On Monday, we discussed the quarterbacks. Next up:

Running backs

Syracuse hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2012. And while they didn’t break that streak in 2018, the running game absolutely started to look like what we envisioned when Dino Babers arrived.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Boston College Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

In seasons one and two, Syracuse averaged 119.6 rushing yards per game (115th), then 161.5 (70th), yet exploded this past year for just over 200 yards per game (37th). Even if you take out Eric Dungey’s production — and you have to when evaluating the running backs on this roster — the 142 yards per game hold their own. And importantly, they were also a big part of why this offense seemingly had an endless parade of playmakers to get the ball this year.

Beyond Dungey, the increased effectiveness of the run started with Moe Neal, who picked up a career-high 869 yards on the ground and averaged an impressive 5.61 yards per carry. Neal’s always been the smaller running back in SU’s backfield, yet has found a way to improve his abilities between the tackles and actually look the role of a feature ball-carrier this year. He’s not necessarily a short-yardage option, but he’s come as close to being an every-down back as the team’s had in a few years.

Speaking of players that improved this year, Dontae Strickland managed to as well. The senior had 599 yards and six scores while averaging 4.95 yards per carry, and like Neal, he also set a career-high for rushing average. Strickland ran well in the middle, while finding additional utilization in the passing game (15 catches). Syracuse didn’t run to the outside much, but when the offense did, Strickland was usually the guy with the ball.

While the Orange still didn’t rectify their short yardage problem beyond Dungey, freshman Jarveon Howard probably came the closest. The big back burst onto the scene late against Wagner, and looked impressive in short work against FSU (55 yards), UConn (60) and Louisville (71). He had seven scores and could’ve potentially tacked on a few more too had he gotten more regular carries. Howard’s 315 yards with a 4.63 average show major upside, though.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Honorable mention for some of the other runners: Abdul Adams redshirted after transferring from Oklahoma, and only played in the Camping World Bowl. Yet, he picked up two touchdowns in Orlando, seemingly picking up where he left off during an impressive short stint with the Sooners. Markenzy Pierre had 35 yards on limited carries, while walk-on Otto Zaccardo had 25.

Though Chris Elmore is “technically” a tight end, he’s a fullback for our purposes here. His two touchdowns are the big box score numbers that stand out, but anyone that paid attention to Syracuse games all season knew just how important he was to the run game and short-yardage packages. Elmore allowed Dungey to avoid as many of the big hits up the middle as we’ve seen in past years, letting the QB “surf” on him to key gains. He was a bulldozer for the entire run game, though, and the results are apparent by the averages listed above for the entire backfield.

Really, for as much as Neal’s numbers are what pops when you cover the rushing attack, Elmore might just be the group’s MVP. Though Elmore was deployed in choice spots as a freshman, his sophomore campaign showed him as a fixture in rushing situations and opening up holes. Between his improvement and the offensive line’s increased effectiveness, there was a lot to like out of this run game.

There were a few critiques on the run game too, however. If the rushing attack didn’t start fast, it usually didn’t start at all. Clemson’s the most glaring game to point to there, and Notre Dame looked similarly tough (note: those were also the two best defensive lines Syracuse would face all year). Also, despite improvements from the running back position this year, the Orange still seemed to lean a bit more on Dungey to move the ball on the ground. Ideally, those high per-carry averages for the backfield deliver in short yardage as well.

A lot to like here in any case, as an improved run game only stands to strengthen what Syracuse can do passing the ball too. Babers may be seen as a pass-heavy coach, but his system’s predicated on the run, so the effectiveness there has much more to do with how far this team goes. As we saw this season... that can be a pretty long way.

Grade: B+