Over the last decade or so, the Syracuse University football team has been fortunate to feature a number of talented running backs, and since 2000 there have been nine seasons in which an Orange tailback has amassed more than 1,000 yards on the ground. With the graduation of Prince-Tyson Gulley, the pressure to produce out of the backfield will fall squarely on the shoulders of George Morris II and Devante McFarlane.
The junior tailbacks, who are virtually clones in terms of measurables, have both been getting touches since their freshman seasons. Both had superior numbers during that first year in Orange, as Gulley, Adonis Ameen-Moore, and Ervin Philips began handling the bulk of the carries out of the Syracuse backfield. McFarlane, after rushing for 292 yards on 48 carries as a freshman, had 20 fewer carries and finished with 169 yards as a sophomore. Morris toted the rock 79 times as a freshman for 334 yards, but saw those numbers dip to 35 carries and just 101 yards as a sophomore.
Both have had fairly high expectations since arriving at Syracuse. McFarlane was the in-state kid, a dynamic tailback from Wheatley Heights who at 6-foot-1, 198 pounds has the explosiveness to be a home run threat every time he touches the ball. Over his first two seasons, he’s averaging better than 6.0 yards per carry, and last year against Wake Forest he showed off that explosive playmaking when he busted loose for an 86 yard run.
Morris, on the other hand, has been catching the eye of the Syracuse coaches since he first arrived on the Hill from Lawrenceville, Georgia. The 6-foot-1, 194 pound Morris is known for his patience and side to side agility, with a smooth running style going in and out of breaks. However, that didn’t translate last year, as he averaged a lackluster 2.9 yards per carry in his limited role.
This year, however, there’s no one standing between Morris, McFarlane, and the playing field. Gulley and Ameen-Moore are both gone, and while Philips will certainly get a few carries here and there, he’s been split out wide to become much more of a pass catching threat, as Tim Lester and the offense hope to use his elusiveness out in space to the team’s benefit.
Not much is known about Tim Lester’s offense yet, other than the fact that by all accounts it’ll lean more heavily on running backs and tight ends than last year, when the team’s leading rusher, Gulley, finished the season with just 614 yards. It’s actually been two seasons since Syracuse had a 1,000 yard rusher, and with McFarlane and Morris, the staff is no doubt hoping to end this mini-streak of having a running back reach that particular measuring stick. From 2008 to 2012, the Orange had a tailback break the 1,000 yard mark, and both McFarlane and Morris certainly have the talent to climb over that hump and get the running game back on track.
Obviously, with the very real possibility that the team could use a two-headed monster approach both tailbacks might fall below 1,000 yards because they’ll likely be splitting carries. The impending arrival off highly touted freshman Dontae Strickland could also throw a wrench into the two-headed monster approach, as Strickland boasts the explosive playmaking ability to earn reps early in his playing career, particularly with so little depth in the backfield in 2015. Fellow freshmen Tyrone Perkins and Jordan Fredericks could also make some noise in the backfield.
Syracuse more or less knows what it has at quarterback with Terrel Hunt, and under Lester’s tutelage the Orange will be hoping he plays more like the guy we saw back in the Texas Bowl in 2013. Steve Ishmael and Alvin Cornelius, along with the rest of the receiving corps which also includes Ashton Broyld, Brisly Estime, Philips, and new tight end Trey Dunkelberger gives Hunt plenty of weapons to throw to. Now it’s just a matter of finding out exactly what the Orange have to work with at the running back position.
For Morris and McFarlane, the time is now to step up and show the ACC what they’ve got.