It’s no secret that Syracuse’s offense has and always will revolve around the passing game for as long as Dino Babers is at the helm. But a supplementary running game is exactly what can take the offense to the next level.
The ground attack is going to be a crucial aspect for an Orange team that ranked closer to last than first in the nation in rushing yards last season. But next year could change some of that. Instead of hurrying to the line fresh off of a 25 yard completion and squandering a down by running it up the gut for no gain, that run play could be five, seven or even first down yardage.
Now to do that, the Orange has a couple of options to choose from. First is Eric Dungey. The quarterback has been amongst SU’s leading rushers every season at the helm and probably would have led the team all three seasons if not for injury. But there have never been doubts about Dungey’s abilities with his legs.
The real question for SU is who will emerge at running back. Neither Dontae Strickland nor Moe Neal have really taken over as “the guy” during their tenures together in the backfield. And while most of Dungey’s injuries have been unpredictable freak incidents, nothing suggests that he will suit up for a full season. Backup Tommy DeVito is more of a pocket passer than a dual threat QB, which means regardless of Dungey’s health, the Orange running backs will be a crucial part of a potent offense.
A major plus for both Strickland and Neal for the upcoming season is the offensive line. Nearly the entire unit returns and in addition, in comes Texas A&M grad transfer Koda Martin, who started most of the season for the Aggies. So with all of this in mind, will either Neal or Strickland take the position over?
It’s worth noting that both are very different types of backs. Strickland is more effective between the tackles, while Neal thrives in space. Strickland is more of a three or four yard gain type of runner, Neal owns more home run potential. Strickland isn’t as natural of a pass catcher as Neal is. But what he lacks in hands, he makes up for with superior pass blocking to Neal. So if you were to pick which type of back would thrive more in SU’s up-tempo offense in 2018, who would it be? The answer is Neal.
Entering his junior year, Neal has lot to prove for a couple of reasons. First, he hasn’t gotten nearly the opportunity that Strickland has (and probably rightfully so) because he has had to play catch-up with Strickland being a year older. But when on the field, Neal has certainly done a lot more wow-ing than Strickland. His first ever carry went for a 49-yard touchdown and he finished 10th in the ACC in yards per carry last season. Along with that, Neal actually led all SU running backs in yards last season with 488, despite having 36 fewer carries than Strickland. For a team that could use big plays to really take the next step in its offensive development, Neal is certainly more suited for that role. Couple that with the fact that he’s a valuable asset out of the backfield as a pass catcher (and has even been considered to switch positions to slot receiver) and it further beefs up the case for Neal. He can keep defenses on their toes with his speed, while also serving as a valuable decoy to open up the deep ball that Syracuse has fallen in love with in its aerial attack.
Another reason why this has to be Neal’s year is because of who’s behind him. No, it’s not Markenzy Pierre that he should be losing sleep over. In fact, his biggest competition won’t rack up a single yard this season. But Oklahoma transfer and 4-star recruit Abdul Adams is surely going to be the heavy favorite to be the 2019 starter. Adams has to sit out this season because of the NCAA’s transfer rules. If Neal doesn’t prove himself in 2018, his playing time could be severely diminished in 2019.
Syracuse needs Neal to step up and take the position by the horns with his burst and versatility. Simply put, the SU offense predicates itself on big plays and speed, two boxes that Neal checks off perfectly.