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Syracuse 2020 spring football preview: Running backs

The run game is in need of a rebound for 2020.

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

The Syracuse Orange football team has added 23 new players this offseason — courtesy of recruiting and the transfer portal. And with said additions, we’re now turning the page to the 2020 season.

Spring practice will start soon, though no word on that just yet. But ahead of that and the assumed spring game, we’re previewing each position group on the roster (and specifically, on campus right now). Last week we took a look at the quarterback position.

Today’s topic:

How does the run game rebound from a rough 2019?

Who’s gone?

Most importantly, Moe Neal, who’s led SU in rushing for the last two seasons — and was second on the team in the two seasons before that. Despite a slower start to 2019, Neal finished strong with 376 rushing yards and three touchdowns over the final three games. Otto Zaccardo’s also gone, though he didn’t run the ball last season.

Who’s on campus?

Everyone else from last year, thankfully. Both Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard return after combining for 673 yards in 2019, and breakout freshman Jawhar Jordan is back too with his redshirt intact following an encouraging first year on campus. Part-time “fullback” Chris Elmore returns, but TBD if we see him as much on offense this year. Markenzy Pierre returns as well, as does (redshirt freshman) Garrison Johnson. Walk-ons Jack Guida and Nicky Clifton are also there.

Who’s arriving this summer?

The Orange added two more halfbacks in the 2020 class: the speedy Sean Tucker and the bruising Marlowe Wax. SU has been addressing concerns about the run game with recent classes and 2020’s quality adds are just the latest example of that effort.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s your primary ball-carrier?

Throughout most of Dino Babers’s tenure, starting running back duties have largely been split between two players, with slightly more carries going to the guy who is better at calling out opposing defenses and blocking. Still, Neal did wind up with the most carries late last year, but also had a different skill set than his closest competition. The same can’t necessarily be said for Adams and Howard, who are both bigger backs with a nice burst in the open field (Adams, in particular).

Adams comes in with the edge on paper, given his impressive work when he was at Oklahoma. However, Howard is a hard runner who can punish opposing lines for extended periods. If this “competition” is ever sorted out, it likely won’t be until summer. And no, I’m not ignoring power back Garrison Johnson or track star Jawhar Jordan. Both are potentially big parts of this gameplan without a “starting” title.

How does Sterlin Gilbert improve this run game?

Admittedly, plenty falls on the offensive line there, but if we’re looking specifically at game-planning and play-calling, it may not be the major switch you’re looking for. Gilbert was part of Babers’s earlier offenses as a head coach, and will utilize a lot of the same sort of straight-ahead running we’ve watched for the last four years. Those dives up the middle do draw the defense in, in theory, and they have worked in the past.

The rushing attack seemed to be at its best in years’ past when runs didn’t just dive inside, but mixed in some off-tackle runs and possible sweeps, plus running back screens. Tempo is key there too, and when this offense is rolling, we’ve seen it’s tough to stop.

It may seem like a cop out, but if the passing game can show itself more efficient and effective, the run game will too — and vice versa.

How do we see as much of Jawhar Jordan as possible?

See some of the notes above. Jordan’s one of the fastest players on the roster, and Syracuse coaches will find a way to get him onto the field. He picked up 192 yards from scrimmage (and a TD) on just 17 touches last year, so more of that could supercharge this attack. He’ll get some handoffs, sure. But the bigger opportunities come in the passing game and on sweeps, where he can utilize space and exploit some mismatches.

Without any evidence that this will happen, I could see him getting some time in the slot to best utilize his speed and create some chaos for defenses near the line of scrimmage. At least a few reverses are getting tossed in there as well.

Will we see running backs more involved in the passing game?

Jordan seems like a certainty. But in general, Syracuse’s offense seemed to perform a little better when screens were on the table — especially when the offensive line was just falling apart. Neal, Howard and Adams caught a combined 53 passes last year, which runs rings around the highest previous total for Orange running backs in Dino’s scheme. Hopefully we’re not combating the same constant pressure in 2020, but screens seem like a great way to utilize the speed in this backfield and add new wrinkles that make defenses second-guess playing solely to stop inside runs and deep balls.