Last year’s offense was historically bad for the Syracuse University football team, with a unit plagued by injury and what we’re learning more and more was ineptitude behind the scenes stemming primarily from former offensive coordinator George McDonald. It didn’t help that the Orange had one of the worst rushing seasons in recent memory, something that needs to be remedied in order to take some pressure off Terrel Hunt and the passing game.
Obviously, it’s a symbiotic situation between the running game and the passing game. Without an adequate run game, the defense can hang back and shut down receivers, focusing more on harassing the quarterback; without an adequate passing game, the defense can put eight or nine men in the box and just shut the offense down completely.
Syracuse lost its two leading rushers from a year ago in Prince-Tyson Gulley and Adonis Ameen-Moore, who combined for just 951 yards and only two touchdowns last season. Not many things went right with the offense in 2014, and the run game was near the top of the list. There was a massive drop off in rushing totals from 2013, when the Orange fought to a 7-6 record, and last year, when they stumbled to a 3-9 mark. In 2013, the team averaged 194.8 rushing yards per game; last season that number plummeted to 145.2. Last season also marked just the second time since 2008 that the Orange failed to have a runner crack the 1,000 yard mark. Incidentally, both of those seasons have come in the last two years.
It’s hard to imagine that the answer at running back will come before Robert Washington steps on campus in January, but the Orange could have a solid solution on campus already. Devante McFarlane and George Morris II came to Syracuse with loads of promise but so far haven’t lived up to any of the hype, particularly in the case of Morris, who rushed for just 101 yards and 2.9 yards per carry last season. But McFarlane, in limited carries, has shown glimpses of being a big play runner that Tim Lester’s offense so desperately needs.
McFarlane rushed for 292 yards as a freshman and then fell to 169 yards last season, with 86 of those coming on one run. Still, the third year running back enters the fall as the team’s top option at running back (but could quickly find himself sharing snaps with true freshmen Jordan Fredericks and Dontae Strickland). Over the course of his two seasons, he’s averaged better than 6.0 yards per carry, which is nothing to sneeze at, no matter how few attempts he’s had (76 carries in two seasons).
With a new offense that focuses more on downhill running, which is something desperately needed once the coaching staff realized that the personnel still didn’t have the East/West speed necessary to beat ACC defenses to the edge, along with experience on the line and the return of Terrel Hunt it feels like this could be a solid year for McFarlane to break out and gain 800-900 yards on the ground. That’s not world beating stuff, but it’d be a solid step in the right direction, particularly after last year’s leading rusher, Gulley, had just 614 yards. That marked the lowest total since Curtis Brinkley gained 371 yards in 2007.
McFarlane has the size (6-foot, 193) and speed to be an effective runner in the ACC, and now that he’s the top dog in the backfield he can finally get extended opportunities to show what he can do. The same goes for Morris, but based on past performance it seems like McFarlane is the best bet to emerge from last year’s rushing scrapheap. There are a lot of things to watch in Lester’s new offense this fall, but how well McFarlane does in his new starting role will go a long way toward determining just how good Syracuse can be this season.