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Syracuse 2021 spring football preview: Running backs

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After a surprising breakout from Sean Tucker, a lot of expectations now rest on the run game.

NCAA Football: Liberty at Syracuse Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

After years of compiling these Syracuse Orange spring football previews, this is certainly the weirdest iteration thus far. At current, we don’t know if or when spring football is really happening, and also don’t have a full staff in place for Dino Babers. Speaking of Babers, he’s potentially on the hot seat — or at least lukewarm seat — after two straight losing campaigns (and four of out five without a bowl). On the bright side, it keeps things interesting.

Last week, we looked at the quarterback position and the battle brewing there between Tommy DeVito and transfer Garrett Shrader. This week, we continue in the offensive backfield with running backs.

Can Dino Babers finally transition this offense to a run-first attack?

Who’s gone?

Markenzy Pierre’s elected to enter the transfer portal, so it’s likely he’s no longer with the program. Same goes for speedster Jawhar Jordan, who began last season as the starting running back.

Other than that, we’re not so sure. Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard both opted out of the 2020 season, yet we don’t know their status going forward. It appears that Adams is back on campus based on social media posts last month, and Howard has also returned to Syracuse (per Stephen Bailey), though there’s been no indication that he’s back with the team.

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

Who’s on campus?

Maybe Adams and Howard, who were projected to be the top two running backs for Syracuse last summer, before opting out. The two combined for 673 yards and six scores back in 2019 while playing behind Moe Neal on the depth chart.

Luckily, whether they’re back or not, the running back room is still looking alright — even if not as deep as it would be with those two veterans in the fold. Sean Tucker was thrust into action last season behind a bad line (plus paired with some poor QB play) and still managed 626 yards and four touchdowns on the ground plus another 113 receiving yards. Tucker’s freshman rushing total was the third-highest in school history, behind Joe Morris and Delone Carter. Not bad for a guy that wasn’t even on the depth chart to start the year, was one of the only real sources of positive offense and basically missed three games (plus another because we only played 11).

Converted wideout Cooper Lutz is the other returning scholarship back, who amassed 246 yards — averaged 5.72 yards per carry — as Tucker’s backup last year and looked impressive in spurts. Additionally, walk-on Devin Flowers remains with the team, and Syracuse has also added Ja’Tarie Washington, brother of Orange D-end Latarie Kinsler, as a walk-on.

Prior to a high school injury, Washington was a highly sought-after recruit, but interest fell off once he hurt his knee. Mike McAllister tells the whole story well, and it’s clear Washington has the potential to be more than “just” a walk-on addition here.

Oh, and Chris Elmore is back and won’t have to play on the line, which should pay major dividends here as well.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Seems like it’ll just be one player: Josh Hough. The bruising runner from Beaver Falls, Pa. has the potential to fill a short-yardage role right away for SU if Howard and/or Adams don’t return. Hough rushed for over 2,000 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior this past fall, which is pretty encouraging.

Okay, do we have a 1,000-yard rusher on this roster?

Feels like we’ve asked this question every season since the last time the Orange had someone run for 1,000 yards (Jerome Smith, all the way back in 2012), but this time there’s a real reason to believe it’ll happen. Tucker averaged 4.57 yards per carry last year with zero line in front of him, poor QB play and play-calling that did very little for him or anyone else. Now insert Chris Elmore back in to block, plug Chris Bleich in on the interior line and potentially have at least average quarterback play this season.. you can see the path to him getting to 1,000 over a 12-game (or 13-game!) schedule.

A lot of that also depends on how the play-calling evolves. Sterlin Gilbert seemed to struggle for his sea legs in his first season as Syracuse’s offensive coordinator. Now with a full offseason and hopefully fewer injuries for 2021, there’s the potential he could improve. Know what he has in Tucker already should also help matters, as perhaps they can finally gear this offense around the traditional run-game — as Babers always intended it, but has yet to really been able to do in his five previous seasons at the helm at SU.

Another factor that’s out of Tucker’s hands is who else is back and how they’re utilized. Obviously Tucker can be a workhorse, but if we have at least three capable starters, then it’s more likely everyone’s getting platooned a bit more. Still, think the potential is here for Tucker to hit the 1K mark and grow on last year’s impressive returns.

How doe Syracuse utilize Cooper Lutz?

Like much else here, plenty depends on whether Adams and/or Howard is returning. Without them, he’s firmly in the mix as one of the handful of scholarship players back. With even one of them in the fold, there’s the potential we see Lutz used in a more creative, H-back type role that opts to get the most out of his speed and pass-catching abilities.

As was the case with Tucker, Syracuse learned a lot about what they had with Lutz last year. Even if not in a traditional running back role, they’ll find unique ways to plug him in this fall.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville
Nov 18, 2017; Louisville, KY, USA; Syracuse Orange fullback Chris Elmore (36) tries to break free from the tackle of Louisville Cardinals linebacker Stacy Thomas (32) during the second quarter at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

How much of a difference does Chris Elmore provide?

A pretty big one, honestly. After playing fullback/tight end for much of his career to-date at Syracuse, Elmore was asked to play guard last year and was actually one of the team’s top performers on the line. That experiment ended during the last two games, however, and you saw the big difference it made having Rhino functioning as a fullback instead. While the Orange had just three rushing yards vs. NC State, they managed 229 in the finale against Notre Dame.

Upgrading the line plus returning Elmore to being a blocker should be a major boost for a run game that already showed promise despite chaos when Tucker was leading the way.

Is Hough the short-yardage back we’ve been looking for?

Some Syracuse running backs have fared well in short yardage recently, but we haven’t necessarily had that reliable, big bruiser to pick up those gains of late — as evidenced by how many times Eric Dungey used to have to just dive into the middle of the line, overall third down struggles or issues inside the 10-yard line. The last guy to fit the bill was potentially Adonis Ameen-Moore in the “tank” package. And even that had marginal results.

Hough, however, could be exactly what we need at 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds. Those measurements make him the biggest scholarship back on the roster (though Flowers is 6-foot-0 and 245 pounds), and a possible fit as a specialist here if needed. It’s not to doubt Tucker — or Adams or Howard, potentially. Rather, it’s just seeing a potential way to upgrade our execution in short-yardage situations where we’ve very much struggled. If Hough can jump in and just show an ability to move the pile a few yards now and again this year, that could mean a world of difference between an offense that keeps drives moving and one that doesn’t.