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Syracuse football 2021 season report card: Running backs

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We’re very pleased with at least one of their performances.

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NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

We’re not done with the 2021 Syracuse Orange football season just yet, as you’ve probably figured by now — especially given this site’s long history of extensively covering middling football. Over these next two weeks, we’re publishing position-by-position report cards looking at where Syracuse succeeded — and also failed to succeed.

After yesterday’s conversation around the quarterback position’s struggles, we move on to more positive things with the running backs. We’ll wrap up the offensive side of things this week, then next week is defense and special teams. So hopefully you’re ready for a lot more subjective grading — and maybe you even have some of your own to share.

Running Backs

While the 2020 Syracuse football season was an unmitigated disaster on most fronts, we felt like SU had potentially something special with freshman running back Sean Tucker. Despite a terrible line, no discernible play-calling and a lack of a passing attack to balance things out, he still topped 600 yards and looked like he could make strides the following fall. Oh, how we underestimated him, though.

As you know, Tucker didn’t just improve — he was better by leaps and bounds, and was the primary reason for Syracuse having the success it did (when it did, anyway). The second-year player ran for a school-record 1,496 yards on the season and added 12 touchdowns on the ground. He caught another 20 passes for 255 yards and another two scores, set school records for most 100-yard games in a season (nine), and became one of college football’s better memes. Tucker finished the year with the fourth-most rushing yards and yards from scrimmage in the country while leading a top-20 rushing attack in the FBS.

Even given the staggering nature of those numbers, though, they also could’ve been much better. Tucker’s own frustration with the Orange’s play-calling just scratches the surface of what the passing struggles and Gilbert’s questionable decisions did. During four different games, Tucker had fewer than 15 carries, and he had fewer than 20 in each of the final three. The Garrett Shrader-focused offense installed mid-season vultured touchdowns and carries inside the 20. With improvisation as the straw that stirred this particular drink, Tucker’s number wasn’t called with the same frequency — something that was reflected both in terms of his stats and the team’s lack of wins late.

If there’s an aspect of Tucker’s game that may have contributed to offensive struggles, it was his pass-blocking — something that was put on display far more once line injuries piled up and Chris Elmore went out. You could counter that, of course, by asking why he was so frequently in pass-blocking situations.

Another knock on an otherwise solid rushing season (Syracuse’s best as a team since 2018) was the lack of any real variance. Tucker (1,496 yards) and Shrader (781 yards) looked great from a production standpoint. But the team’s third- and fourth-leading rushers were Tommy DeVito and Jarveon Howard, who both transferred out before the end of the year. Cooper Lutz had just 17 carries for 60 yards, while Abdul Adams had 13 for 56. Nearly all of those were in garbage time too, so these experienced players weren’t used as changes of pace, receivers out of the backfield, pass-blockers or in two-back sets. Instead, they were just used to kill clock.

The critiques around carries isn’t a call for Tucker to get fewer, as much as it points out just how one-dimensional this offense really was in 2021. You may or may not be surprised to learn that 84 PERCENT of Syracuse’s offensive plays this season were either a Shrader pass, Shrader run or Tucker run. Sure, not all of those look the same — but a lot of them did.

If Syracuse was able to actually mix in some tempo, you could’ve also seen more variance around players involved in the offense. But with just 778 plays logged (106th in the country), you can only do so much before you’re removing the ball from the hands of your best players... or player in this case, with Tucker.

Whoever the Orange hire as the next offensive coordinator has to incorporate a capable passing game first and foremost. But his next charge will simply be bringing back any sort of tempo. We don’t even need to move the ball as fast as we did in 2018 (971 plays in 12 games). But the more opportunities this offense can create to score points, the better.

The run game will obviously be a big part of what’s next for this offense and its new coordinator, since you want to show Tucker that he has a reason to stick around at least one more season. Whoever they hire will certainly understand that, and hopefully capable passing and a faster tempo actually lead to more success for Tucker — AND the rest of the tam’s running backs, who should be able to get more attempts than what we saw for backups this year.

If we’re just grading Tucker this year, he gets an A. But do think the issues above — and how they surfaced during an ineffective final three games — do matter and should affect these subjective grades slightly (even acknowledging that the struggles weren’t Tucker’s fault).

Grade: A-