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Syracuse football 2020 season report card: Running backs

A surprising development amid a lot of concerns

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NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Do you want to discuss this injury-riddled 1-10 Syracuse Orange football season any more than we already have? No. Is that going to stop us (largely me) from doing so anyway? Also no.

Per usual, we’re providing position group recaps on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball (plus special teams), with grades included. This week, the focus is on the offense — which started with quarterbacks. Today, we move onto:

Running Backs

In early August, we thought the backfield was deep with Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard carrying the load, plus Jawhar Jordan being a jack-of-all-trades who could catch passes and utilize speed to the outside. Instead, Adams and Howard opted out before the season started, Jordan was injured within the first three games of the year and SU wound up with two backs that had a combined zero career careers before this season carrying the load.

If that sounds perilous, it had the potential to be. But we wound up finding out that Sean Tucker was our best freshman running back in years and former wide receiver Cooper Lutz was a far better option than we imagined. Despite running behind a poor offensive line (and dealing with poor play-calling) all year, Tucker wound up running for 626 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and Lutz had 246 (5.72 YPC), with both topping 100 yards vs. Notre Dame and showing flashes of explosiveness that few Orange ball-carriers have managed of late.

It’s pretty amazing, really, that Tucker was fifth or so on the depth chart heading into the season given what we saw on the field — again, despite the poor line play. Pro Football Focus data shows he averaged over 4.5 YPC up the middle (which is great given how much that part of the line struggled) and nearly 5.8 YPC going around the left end of the line. After years of Syracuse trying to find a back who had speed to the outside and an ability to push the pile inside, it appears Tucker was the answer. The bigger question is really what took so long to figure this out?

From game one of Tucker (four carries for 23 yards vs. Pitt), we saw something other SU running backs just weren’t able to produce, and that was hammered home during a 112-yard effort vs. Georgia Tech just a week later. So what wasn’t obvious in camp that suddenly became very obvious in-game? The guy wound up with the third-most yards for a freshman in school history. That’s unlikely to just pop up out of nowhere.

Though Lutz didn’t have the same size to keep chugging along after contact — and 80 of his 246 yards came from one run vs. the Irish — he was still an effective player with an ability to hit holes and the vision to make adjustments in the open field. While he wasn’t necessarily consistent, his best efforts (vs. Wake Forest and UND) were impressive and showed him a capable backup to Tucker’s every-down usage.

Where both players showed skill but were underutilized, though, is with regard to the passing game. Tucker had the fourth-most receiving yards on the team with 113 on just eight catches, while Lutz caught eight for 56. Given the pressure that Syracuse QBs were constantly facing, using running backs (and tight ends) for screens could’ve paid some dividends. But play-calling never made this adjustment for any long-term stretch.

Part of that reasoning could’ve been because of the absence of Chris Elmore at fullback for much of the season. While he was typically a big part of both run and pass blocking from the backfield, Elmore had to be plugged in at guard for nearly the entire season. When he returned to fullback, you saw a major step forward for the run game. But also the time Rex Culpepper had to pass. Though Tucker and Lutz had great moments running the football, they were not adept pass-blockers (both players graded out at 66.7 or lower out of 100, per PFF). Still, freeing them up from pass-blocking to pass-catching may not have worked well since just having a body out there to block (even if not incredibly well) likely yields a little more time to throw than no one at all.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

We did see other backs here and there, but their results (or lack thereof) is how we wound up with a Tucker/Lutz backfield to begin with. Jordan, who began the year as the starter, had just 72 yards on 29 carries (2.5 yards per) while the interior line regularly collapsed in on him. Given Jordan’s size (5-foot-9, 172 pounds), he didn’t have the power to run up the gut and he couldn’t get to the edge quick enough. There’s a use for him in the next iteration of this offense. But maybe it’s more as an H-Back or slot receiver.

Elsewhere, it’s noteworthy that Markenzy Pierre never really got going once again (48 yards on 21 carries), which meant the team’s third-leading rusher was wide receiver Nykeim Johnson (82 yards on eight carries). The team knew how to use Nykeim creatively, but hesitated to do so more often to keep the element of surprise. I’d argue if they used him more often there, they may not have “needed” the element of surprise so much. Alas...

Like the quarterback position, there are caveats here for the effects of the line and play-calling, plus the situation the running backs were thrust into with a quickly limited depth chart and virtually no experience. Still, the fact that Tucker and Lutz were able to produce shows it could be done, even if not with the same frequency we needed for this offense to function correctly. This was a group that only averaged 3.16 yards per attempt, though, and was one of the worst teams in the country in terms of rushing yards per game. You can’t just ignore that even when acknowledging Tucker’s success.

Similar to most of the positives we’ll wind up finding in this recaps, Syracuse’s running backs showed signs of what they could do in the right circumstances and that should provide some hope for next year provided injuries and line issues are less of a concern. If nothing else, we arguably have more proven building blocks for next year (even if assuming Adams and Howard won’t return) than we have in the last couple seasons. Expect this backfield to be an even bigger part of an improved offense next fall.

Grade: C+