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ACC football 2020 position preview: Running backs

Travis Etienne’s return for a surprising senior year likely gives Syracuse (and other) fans nightmares

College Football Playoff National Championship - Clemson v LSU Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

We saw glimmers of an improved Syracuse Orange running game late last year, but early, things were rough. While all of the attention typically winds up on the big passing numbers in Dino Babers’s offense, it’s a consistent run game that really makes things go. A lack of one in 2019 clearly knocked the Orange down a peg. Reestablishing the ground game in 2020 could help SU find another winning season.

I’m not going to pretend to know how this coming season shakes out given everything going on in the world. But until we hear football’s cancelled for 2020, we’re going to continue to preview each position group in the ACC each week this summer — and look at how Syracuse measures up comparatively. Following up on Wednesday’s SU running backs preview, we’ll stick with that position group.

ACC Football 2020 Running Backs Preview

Last year’s top performers

The ACC has been pretty top-heavy at running back recently, and that remained true last fall. For the second straight year, Boston College’s AJ Dillon led the conference in yards per game (129.6 this time around), and he wound up tied for second in rushing TDs with 14. Admittedly, though, Travis Etienne was clearly the top back in the conference — his team just usually had enough of a lead that he didn’t have to stay on the field very long. He still wound up with 1,614 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground just the same.

Louisville freshman Javin Hawkins was one of the conference’s top surprises last year while picking up 1,525 yards and nine scores of his own. Meanwhile, Cam Akers (1,114 yards) and UNC’s Michael Carter (1,003) also wound up topping the century mark — with teammate Javonte Williams not too far behind at 933 yards on the year. Though he picked up just 473 yards on the season, Virginia’s Wayne Taulapapa at least had a nose for the end zone, punching it in 12 times; the fourth-highest total in the ACC.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 Music City Bowl - Mississippi State v Louisville Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who will excel in 2020?

Lucky for Clemson (and unlucky for everyone else), Etienne is back and should run roughshod over the conference once again. Hawkins and Carter also come back with sights set on bigger campaigns as well. Carter, in particular, will be looking to impress NFL scouts in his senior season. Etienne already seems like a lock to go in the first half of round one.

With Georgia Tech likely leaning on the run game pretty heavily, a strong campaign for junior Jordan Mason seems likely after he picked up 899 yards on the ground in 2019. And despite Dillon’s departure for BC, uncertainty at quarterback should mean ample opportunity for David Bailey to put up big numbers with the Eagles this year. SU fans are unfortunately very familiar with the Maryland native’s body of work. He put up 172 yards on just 16 carries against the Orange in 2019.

Though a lot depends on the offensive line, it’s also worth mentioning the breakout potential for Jashaun Corbin, the Texas A&M transfer who seems to be the heir apparent to Cam Akers at Florida State. In his only full season with the Aggies, the speedy back had 431 yards on just 71 touches, and also showed himself to be a pretty dynamic kick returner. Watch out for him.

Top three units: 1. Clemson, 2. Louisville, 3. North Carolina

Between Etienne and the always strong Clemson offensive line, it’s hard to pick against the Tigers here. Along with the veteran All-American, they also return Lyn-J Dixon (635 yards last year), Chez Mellusi (276) and Michael Dukes (150) to back him up. It’s truly an embarrassment of riches that nearly seems unfair.

Louisville returns its own deep backfield as well, after averaging nearly 213 yards per game on the ground in 2019. Along with the aforementioned Hawkins, Hassan Hall (501 yards) returns, and the group should be further helped by the rushing ability of QB Micale Cunningham. That doesn’t count toward these rankings, but it does help stop opposing teams from stacking the box to stop handoffs as much. That’ll do both Hawkins and Hall some favors as they work to top last year’s production.

UNC has their own impressive passer in Sam Howell to take pressure off the run game, but he’ll also rely on the rushing attack for an assist. The 1-2 punch of Carter and Williams should look impressive once more after each averaging at least 5.6 yards per carry last year.

Bottom three units: 12. Syracuse, 13. Virginia, 14. Duke

I know, I know... #disloyalidiot. However, Syracuse loses top rusher (and offensive playmaker) Moe Neal, and while we like the potential Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard (plus Jawhar Jordan) bring, we haven’t really see it in-game as much yet.

Virginia loses three of their top five rushers from last year, and while Taulapapa could see an increased workload, his 4.1 yards per carry didn’t necessarily indicate game-breaking ability beyond short-yardage (or perhaps his yards per carry stayed low because of how much he was used in short-yardage). No Bryce Perkins at QB could mean there’s more attention paid to him, so let’s see how that affects outputs.

Duke’s not necessarily a team to focus heavily on the run game, and that should remain true once again in 2020. Deon Jackson is a much more dynamic pass-catching option (21 receptions for 192 yards) than he is a traditional halfback (averaged just 3.7 yards per carry last year). However, Mataeo Durant (461 yards on just 97 carries) could surprise, and perhaps make the Blue Devils’ rushing attack a larger factor than assumed.

Top five running backs in the ACC:

  1. Travis Etienne, Clemson
  2. Javian Hawkins, Louisville
  3. Michael Carter, North Carolina
  4. Jordan Mason, Georgia Tech
  5. David Bailey, Boston College
Pittsburgh v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Where does Syracuse rank?

As mentioned above, they’re 12th right now and largely because the experience is still pretty unproven. Adams, Howard and Jordan combined for just 778 yards in 2019 and we’ve yet to see any of those three backs put up consistent numbers against opposing first-team players for a full game. That’s not to say they can’t. Based on what we know right now, though, sort of have to play wait-and-see. If you wanted to argue SU up 2-3 spots (in the Wake Forest/Virginia Tech/Pitt territory), it’s certainly worth entertaining. The margin’s not that wide between those schools’ respective backfield situations and the Orange’s.