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Syracuse football 2019 season report card: Running backs

A tale of two completely different seasons for the Orange backfield.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

After a highly disappointing 5-7 season, there are probably a lot of you that would rather not look back at 2019 for the Syracuse Orange football team. But before we move forward into what we hope is a much better 2020, it’s worth taking stock of what’s occurred.

For the next two weeks, we’ll be going position by position recapping SU’s year to see what worked, what didn’t, and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or in many cases, a lack thereof). Yesterday, we talked through quarterbacks. Today, it’s

Running Backs

The run game’s success was a big part of Syracuse’s 10-win 2018, and despite some shifts on the offensive line this season, it was supposed to be a big part of this year’s attack as well. And yet, for much of the season, it wasn’t.

Stuck behind a line that struggled to open holes, the rushing attack screeched to a halt for much of 2019’s early contests. Syracuse averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry in seven of the first nine games, with the lone exceptions being the opener against Liberty (4.36 ypc) and the Western Michigan game (5.49 ypc). Worse still, they averaged fewer than three yards per carry in four of those. Whether it was Moe Neal, Abdul Adams or Jarveon Howard, Orange runners simply couldn’t get anywhere — up the middle or off-tackle.

Coupled with a defense that was getting worked in the first half of games, Syracuse’s offense became a one-dimensional mess that let teams rush the passer without fear. We’ll get into a bit more of that when we talk about the offensive line later in the week. But an inability to run the ball handcuffed this offense perhaps even more than the pressure Tommy DeVito was constantly under.

And then, with three games to go, everything changed for the better.

Following the departure of Ryan Alexander, and the position switch that moved Airon Servais to tackle and Carlos Vettorello to center, the run game suddenly looked resurgent — as did the entire offense, to some extent. On the ground, Syracuse picked up 286 yards against Duke (6.65 average), 261 vs. Louisville (5.01 average) and 180 (4.01 average) against Wake Forest. Granted, all of those defenses had plenty of struggles coming into those games. But still, you saw the distinct difference in running lanes and rushing intensity.

On an individual level, the biggest beneficiary of the shift — and likely one of the biggest reasons for it — was Neal. In his final three games at SU, the senior ran for 276 yards and three scores. The yards made up 33% of his total for the year, and propelled him to No. 9 on Syracuse’s career rushing list.

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

While Neal certainly earned his carries, he also received a pretty large portion of them compared to his backfield mates, Adams and Howard. Despite a perception that Neal and Adams would be splitting carries coming into the year, Adams barely had half of Neal’s rushes (170 vs. 87). And despite the promise we’ve seen from him in burst, Adams was regularly shut down on the ground, and averaged just 3.86 yards per carry; this after averaging about nine at his previous stop, Oklahoma.

Howard was used even less, at 76 rushes, though many of those were in garbage time, both the good and bad kind. His 337 yards (4.43 ypc) were greatly influenced by some big runs in there and a strong final three games of his own. One place we didn’t see him used a ton is where he’s potentially at his best — in short yardage. That’s in part due to a lack of opportunities, especially near the goal line.

And while we didn’t see a ton of him this year, the player that may have excited Syracuse fans most on the ground was freshman Jawhar Jordan, who’s probably the fastest player on the roster and maybe one of the quickest in the conference. Sure, we only saw him in four games, but he made them count. Jordan had 105 yards and a TD on 15 carries, putting in his most impressive work vs. Louisville. Along with 35 rushing yards, he had two catches for 87 yards in that game too (including a thrilling 81-yard catch and run in there).

This team loses Neal next year, but what’s still in place could lead to a comeback for the ground game. It’s not to extrapolate out the final three games as the expectation. However, even if we see something partly resembling what we saw in those games — from the line and the running backs — it could yield a return to form for this offense, which is always at its best when leaning on the rushing attack.

Grade: C