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Syracuse football 2021 position preview: Running backs

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Hey, this is finally (potentially) a position of strength again!

NCAA Football: Duke at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Hopefully you enjoyed your July 4 weekend, because we’re officially in full swing with our Syracuse Orange 2021 football season previews — and will be throughout the next two months.

Along with “Get to Know” pieces and early opponent previews, we also started our position-by-position roster breakdown as well. Last week, we started with quarterbacks. This time around it’s:

Running Backs

Even with much of the roster succumbing to injury at one point or another, there was a position group that managed to persevere better than most. Part of that was a product of necessity, but the other was a case of young players rising to the occasion. In 2020, Syracuse’s initial running back situation appeared one way, morphed into something else entirely, and now looks like one of the team’s few strengths for this fall.

Of course, the numbers are what they are too, and last year, they were miserable. SU averaged just 3.16 yards per carry, and were 121st in the country in yards per game on the ground with just 92. All of that said, they still hit at least 150 yards rushing against the two best teams on the schedule (150 vs. Clemson and 229 vs. Notre Dame), while the Orange’s top two runners each averaged over 4.5 yards per carry. So while there’s room for improvement, you can also see clearly how that occurs when 2021 kicks off.

Sean Tucker, Freshman

Tucker amassed 626 yards in nine games last year, along with four touchdowns, and was clearly the team’s top offensive playmaker. Though he didn’t really get going until week three vs. Georgia Tech, it was clear that the more touches he got, usually the more effective he became. In eight of his nine games, he averaged at least 4.25 yards per carry, yet only topped the 20 rushes mark three times (he eclipsed 100 yards in all of those games). As this year’s starter, you’ll likely (hopefully) see a lot more of him as he utilizes his unique blend of speed and power to stabilize this offense.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Cooper Lutz, (Redshirt) Sophomore

After coming over from the wide receivers group, we weren’t expecting to see much of Lutz last summer, yet injuries and opt-outs gave him opportunities that he made the most of. After carrying the ball just five times for 19 yards over the year’s first five games, he had 38 rushes for 227 (5.97 ypc average) the rest of the way. Better still, he enjoyed some breakout games in there, topping 80 yards against both Wake Forest and Notre Dame. Dino Babers seems impressed with him this offseason, which could mean even more opportunities for him and potentially more chances to catch the ball out of the backfield, too.

Abdul Adams, (Redshirt) Senior

Adams was one of a couple opt-outs from this position group last year and returns to find himself starting up a depth chart he would’ve sat atop of entering fall 2020. Still, the former four-star recruit can use this season as a pro audition and will be tasked with making the most of his appearances. Back in 2019, he had 87 carries for 336 yards, and seemed to struggle to really get the extra push due in part to a rough-looking line in front of him. If he can bring some power to the table, it’ll at least mean chances as a short-yardage specialist and/or third down back.

Jarveon Howard, Junior

Last year’s other opt-out, Howard may actually have the better jump on SU’s short-yardage role. The 5-foot-10, 202-pound back averaged 4.43 yards per carry back in 2019 and picked up the second-most rushing first downs on the team that year, only behind Moe Neal. Realistically, it may be a one-or-the-other situation around how many carries Adams and Howard respectively get, if we assume Tucker and Lutz are at the top of the depth chart. Still, having this sort of depth at the position is crucial, as we noticed very quickly last season.

Josh Hough, Freshman

Hough could be a sleeper addition to the running backs group in 2021 after the senior season he put up for Beaver Falls. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound bruiser ran for over 2,000 yards and 29 touchdowns on just 124 carries. His size makes you think that he could wind up pushing his way into short-yardage early, though he also exhibits enough speed to be an every-down guy. Syracuse won’t need him to be that just yet, but it’s great to have another player on the roster potentially ready to do that.

Ja’Tarie Washington, Freshman

Washington’s a great depth add for now, and who knows what he could turn into. The former high school standout suffered a knee injury as a senior but had plenty of Power Five offers before that. Now he gets to join his brother (Latarie Kinsler) on the Orange, and be part of a future backfield that has a lot of different types of backs — something that should give Dino a lot of options while trying to wear opposing teams down on the ground as much as possible.

David Obeng-Agyapong, Freshman

Obeng-Agyapong is a virtual unknown as a walk-on, but figures to be more of a speedier back. The role’s largely unaccounted for right now with just about the entire backfield topping 200 pounds. Since he won’t be slated to get much in the way of carries, we’ll see what he turns into on special teams in the short-term.

Saying Syracuse’s run game is a strength isn’t meant as a comparison point compared to other programs. Really, it just seems to have the deepest and most reliable collection of talent on this roster right now. That said, Babers does prefer to have this offense go through the run game — despite what we’ve witnessed for five straight seasons now. If ever there was an Orange team that could really embrace Dino’s desired run-first approach, this would be it.

While the offensive line remains a concern, it should be better. And we saw Tucker and Lutz run well behind that line last year despite the obvious flaws. Given the question marks at quarterback and with play-calling, the easiest path back to acceptable offensive execution seems to be handing it off as much as possible, in order to set up easier passing option for whoever’s under center.