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ACC football 2019 position preview: Running backs

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How does Syracuse stack up against the rest of the conference?

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The Syracuse Orange run game was resurgent last season, averaging over 200 yards per game. And while Eric Dungey was a large part of that, SU’s running backs also got in on the act with both Moe Neal and Dontae Strickland both topping 500 yards on the year. Though now that Dungey and Strickland are both gone, and the Orange replace three of five offensive line starters, it’s not necessarily a guarantee they see the same success on the ground.

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? Last time, we looked at quarterbacks. This go-around:

ACC Football 2019 Running Backs Preview

Last year’s top performers

Seven different ACC running backs hit the 1,000-yard mark, led by Clemson’s Travis Etienne, who picked up 1,658 yards on the ground over the course of 15 games (110 yards per) to pair with an impressive 24 touchdowns. Pitt’s Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall both ran for over 1,110 yards to finish second and third in the league, while Boston College’s A.J. Dillon picked up 1,108 despite only playing in just 10 games.

Reggie Gallaspy Jr. (NC State), Jordan Ellis (Virginia) and Cade Carney (Wake Forest) also topped the 1,000-yard mark, though Carney was the only one of those players to average more than five yards per carry. However, Gallaspy rushed for 18 touchdowns — second in the ACC — and Ollison, Dillon, Hall and Ellis all punched it in 10 or more times each. Speaking to the strength of Clemson’s line and overall talent level, three of the ACC’s top four players in terms of yards per carry were in the Tigers’ backfield. Lyn-J Dixon had 8.82 yards per, followed by Etienne (8.13) and then Adam Choice in fourth (7.12).

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Who will excel in 2019?

Dillon and Etienne are once again poised to be top rushers in the league, and the latter is a potential Heisman Trophy darkhorse if he experiences some of the same success running the ball this year. With a new offensive scheme, there’s a real chance that Florida State’s Cam Akers puts in an impressive season after dipping back to the pack a bit this year. He’s among the most talented backs in the league but hasn’t had the offensive line to really let him get loose just yet.

At Wake Forest, Carney takes over as the primary rusher after a successful season splitting carries with Matt Colburn, so his numbers should increase. With more questions at quarterback for Miami, DeeJay Dallas should see a lot more work. Teams like Syracuse and Duke, which replace veteran passers, should also open more rushing opportunities for players like Moe Neal and Deon Jackson.

Top three units: 1. Clemson, 2. Miami, 3. Boston College

We covered Clemson quite a bit already above. The Tigers bring back Etienne and Dixon, who should make for the conference’s best 1-2 punch in the backfield. Those two will also have the least amount of pressure on them given the cover they’ll get from both an excellent Clemson line and Trevor Lawrence’s proficiency passing the football.

At Miami, Dallas looked great as a sophomore averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and he’ll take over as the Hurricanes’ primary back — though that will still leave plenty of carries for one of the best names in football, Lorenzo Lingard (a speedy, former five-star recruit). Boston College is a bit top-heavy with Dillon, and as a team, they weren’t among the ACC’s best in terms of yards per carry (4.07 was third-to-last in the league). Still, if injuries aren’t an issue again, BC will still be able to lean on Dillon and backup Travis Levy without much trouble.

Bottom three units: 12. Pitt, 13. Virginia, 14. Louisville

Knowing Pitt, they’re unlikely to be one of the three worst rushing teams in the league. But based on what we know right now, just one of last year’s top three halfbacks return in converted DB V’Lique Carter (202 yards in 2018). He’ll likely combine with A.J. Davis and potentially Mychale Salahuddin to try and equal last year’s outputs from a more veteran group of ball-carriers.

Virginia’s run game was largely reliant on Ellis last year, so now they’ll start over with PK Kier (80 yards) as the lead running back, joined by Wayne Taulapapa and others. Louisville’s run game was a disaster in 2018, and it may only look marginally better this season — largely because the entire team’s unlikely to quit on Scott Satterfield the way they did Bobby Petrino. Hassan Hall should start, but Dae Williams and Colin Wilson could show some potential in situations, and could be thrown into more action if the passing game struggles.

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Top five running backs in ACC:

  1. Travis Etienne, Clemson
  2. A.J. Dillon, Boston College
  3. Cam Akers, Florida State
  4. DeeJay Dallas, Miami
  5. Cade Carney, Wake Forest

Where does Syracuse rank?

Syracuse is probably in the top half of the league in terms of running backs, though a lot is going to rely on Chris Elmore’s health and that offensive line. Abdul Adams and Moe Neal should make for a highly capable duo, and there’s depth which should help them stay fresh. If we’re applying an actual ranked number to the Orange, I’d go with seventh. Clemson, Miami, BC, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest are definitely better, and FSU, UNC and NC State could be similar to SU depending on how those offensive lines perform. That’s not a bad spot at all for Syracuse, however, especially if the passing game can avoid too much of a step back.