Last season, Syracuse University football fans were treated to glimpses of the kind of elusive running that could turn Ervin Philips into a home run threat whenever he touches the ball. Then a true freshman, the Connecticut native surprised not just fans but the coaches themselves by how ready and effective he was, rushing for 194 yards and catching 15 passes for an additional 57. This season, Philips looks to be an even bigger part of the Orange offense.
Now, Philips never got a chance to rip off a long run last season, and his yards-per-reception isn’t exactly stellar (3.8-per-catch). He also didn’t score any touchdowns last season, but he showed enough wiggle and explosiveness to get fans excited about the potential he’s going to bring to the table this season.
Of course, he’s bringing it to an entirely new position: the by now notorious “H-back” position. The hybrid – or “Express Back” as Syracuse fans are beginning to call it – is still a bit of a mystery to anyone outside of the coaching staff and the team, and that’s a good thing. Terrel Hunt said earlier this week that it took the Orange defense two weeks to figure out how to stop the H-back, which is either a good indication of what a tremendous weapon it will be, or an ominous indication that the Syracuse defense is about to take a big step backward this year.
Personally, I think it’s going to fall somewhere in between, because obviously there are going to be some growing pains with a young defense that’s replacing more than half of its starters, but a new, dynamic position is going to give almost any defense some trouble. There aren’t many true hybrids on the roster this season, with Philips and true freshman Tyrone Perkins being the closest, while receivers like Ashton Broyld and Ben Lewis are being used at H-back as well. We likely won’t see the full impact of the hybrid position until the roster adds a few more – including class of ’16 commitment Darius Stubbs and, hopefully, Moe Neal (who seems absolutely built for the Express Back position).
Still, this season will offer a chance for Philips to emerge as one of the team’s top weapons, and lining up all over the field will both take advantage of his quickness, particularly if he finds himself being covered by slower linebackers, as well as save his body a bit more from the pounding of being an every down back. At 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, Philips wasn’t built to pound the rock up the gut, and it’s smart to get him on the edge, where he can put his wheels to work.
Now, again, his receiving numbers weren’t particularly great last season. His longest reception was only nine yards, and by all indications, receiving is going to be a key component to the hybrid role in Tim Lester’s offense. But gone are the bubble screens, which are pretty much the only place Philips caught passes last season, and hopefully how he’s used in the passing game will be smarter. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some jet sweeps, for instance.
Syracuse has some holes to fill on both sides of the ball, and last year’s offense was historically bad thanks to a variety of reasons, including an inept coordinator, terrible play-calling, cycling through four quarterbacks, and assorted other injuries along the offensive line. But if the Orange offense is going to take a big step forward under Lester, Philips will be one of the biggest reasons why. Along with wide receiver Steve Ishmael, he’s probably the best pure talent at the offensive skill positions, and it’s his time to emerge as a leader and a difference maker with the ball in his hands.