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Syracuse football 2020 position preview: Running backs

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SU’s run game improved late last year. Can that continue in 2020?

Syracuse v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Though we’re still pretty uncertain about what this upcoming college football season will look like — or if it’ll even happen at all — it’s worth acting like the 2020 Syracuse Orange campaign is happening as planned. At least until we hear otherwise.

In the lead-up to (assumed) kickoff, we’re be looking a different position group on the Orange roster each week, along with every player that may (or may not) make an impact this fall. Last time out, we previewed quarterbacks. This time around, it’s:

Running backs

It’s easy to forget now, but a good portion of Syracuse’s breakthrough 2018 season was due to a resurgent run game (and a quality offensive line in front of them). The Orange averaged just over 200 rushing yards per game that season. And even admitting that some of it was Eric Dungey, that’s still a lot of ground production that helped take pressure off the passing game, and open up the SU aerial attack even more.

Last year, we saw what happens when ‘Cuse struggles to move the ball on the ground. SU averaged 154 rushing yards per game, and that was heavily influenced by the final three games, when they wound up with 242.3 rushing yards per contest. Plenty of credit goes to Moe Neal there, and Syracuse will miss his production this fall. With a potentially better line in front of them this year, though, can the returning running backs pick up where this team left off?

Abdul Adams, (Redshirt) Senior

After putting up a stunning 9.2 yards per game in his most recent Oklahoma season and picking up two scores for Syracuse in the 2018 Camping World Bowl, it was reasonable to expect a strong campaign from Adams last year. Instead, carries were sparse and he averaged fewer than four yards per attempt. Really, the only games that showed glimpses of the runner he was at OU were against Maryland, Holy Cross and Florida State — and even then, he maxed out at 56 yards in the best game there, vs. FSU.

He’s likely to split carries once more, but should conceivably be getting the bigger workload. He’s a shifty back at times, and has some good speed and vision. But we’ve yet to see a ton of power from him. It’ll likely be needed to hold off the competition on this depth chart, even though he’s this group’s most experienced option. Most importantly, Adams or anyone else running the ball, is going to do a better job of finding the end zone. SU’s 16 rushing scores last year (91st in the country) and just 14 of those were attributable to running backs.

Wake Forest v Syracuse Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Jarveon Howard, Junior

Though not much bigger than Adams — 214 pounds vs. 212 — Howard does seem to be a little more bruising of a runner. A lot of his peak production has been later in games these past two years, but he’s in pretty good position right now to split carries with Adams and maybe even become the red zone option who can move the pile a bit.

Howard’s experienced, but again, not as much against first-teamers just yet. That’ll change this year, and I’m anxious to see if he can replicate the 4.4 yards per carry (and more) we’ve seen from him in his first two seasons. To-date, he’s picked up 652 yards and 10 touchdowns for Syracuse. If this line’s truly better, those numbers could be surpassed with some ease.

Jawhar Jordan, (Redshirt) Freshman

It can be argued that Jordan’s the most interesting player in this offense. On just 17 offensive touches last year, he accumulated 192 yards and a touchdown, and Dino Babers thankfully kept his redshirt intact. Jordan is probably the team’s fastest player, and even in short glimpses last year, we saw that he was able to be a capable runner and receiver with major play-making ability.

With two names potentially in front of him on the depth chart, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the slot this year. SU has quite a few wideouts, yes. But no one’s yet shown themselves the speedy slot receiver that’s helped Babers offenses go in the past (see: Ervin Philips, most notably). Jordan can still pick up carries and be a nice change of pace compared to two bigger backs. But don’t be surprised to see him catching a lot more passes.

Cooper Lutz, (Redshirt) Sophomore

While yes, this is a position change for Lutz after being listed as a wide receiver for the past two years, he’s actually returning to where he played for much of high school here in the backfield. At Berks Catholic (in Reading, Pa.), he rushed for over 3,100 yards and 55 touchdowns, and he also has some pretty good hands as you’d guess from his time at receiver.

It’s hard to gauge exactly where and how he’ll be plugged in this year, but he could be an interesting option for screens, as a slot receiver or as a Ben Lewis-type H-back option for the Orange this fall.

Garrison Johnson, (Redshirt) Freshman

One player who could wind up surprising this year is Johnson, who is the biggest running back on the team at 242 pounds. That’s nearly 30 pounds heavier than the next-biggest competitor and it’s exactly the sort of size we could use inside the 10-yard line, where Syracuse has struggled immensely in recent years (and even when they didn’t, the only play-call was a Dungey keeper). He could also play a more versatile Chris Elmore role if Elmore winds up back on the defensive side.

Markenzy Pierre, (Redshirt) Junior

Since rushing for 89 yards as a freshman in 2017, we haven’t seen much of Pierre. He picked up just 35 yards on the ground in 2018 and only six last season while also returning four kicks for 96 yards (not bad, actually). Unfortunately, it’s going to be hard for him to break through the names above him, but there’s still a lot of value here for him as a special-teamer, and maybe even as a return man if they don’t plug Jawhar Jordan or Nykeim Johnson in there.

Sean Tucker, Freshman

Tucker’s a quick player who has a pretty similar build to Neal at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds. Given the guys in front of him right now, he’s a very likely redshirt. However, there’s a chance that perhaps the redshirt rule gives us a glimpse of what he can do here and there without burning through eligibility.

Marlowe Wax, Freshman

Wax is the other side of the Maryland-native “thunder and lightning” duo with Tucker. At 225 pounds and with experience on the defensive side of the ball, he’s a heavy hitter and someone that could get a look in short-yardage situations. On Twitter, he actually lists himself as a linebacker, so let’s see if he winds up on the defensive side instead. He did have 29 tackles for loss at the position during his senior season at Mount Saint Joseph in Baltimore.

Chris Elmore, Senior

We’re listing Elmore, a hybrid fullback/tight end here because realistically, he’s never been a serious pass-catching option for Syracuse (just one catch in three seasons). His blocking has been a crucial part of his game since arriving on campus, but with Johnson available and SU maybe needing some help on the interior part of the defensive line (where he’s also been plugged in before), TBD if we see him as much in the fullback spot he’s inhabited for a lot of the last three seasons.

Devin Flowers, Freshman

The preferred walk-on from Virginia is a power back, coming in at 6 feet tall and 230 pounds after picking ‘Cuse over a PWO offer from Florida State. As Syracuse.com ‘s Stephen Bailey notes in the link there, he amassed over 5,550 yards in four years at Glen Allen High School, and totaled 63 scores. He’s a likely redshirt candidate, but who knows if that acumen near the goal line could come in handy later on in his career.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 20 North Carolina at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A lot of this group’s production is going to ride on the offensive line, and we’ll get to that in the coming weeks. For the actual ball-carriers, this is a group loaded with potential, if not actual outputs just yet so that should at least make you a little hesitant for the time being. Neal was a better runner than given credit for, and his absence will be felt in this backfield, especially between the tackles where he’d become adept at finding space.

Not to put this all on Adams, but a lot of this group’s ceiling gets defined by what he can round into during his final season. A steady campaign where he’s the lead ball-carrier likely opens up many more opportunities for the other running backs, and allows for other play-calling wrinkles to show themselves. If he struggles, it could become a game of musical chairs regarding who gets the most carries. At least we have some options there should it occur, though.