No matter what has been happening in terms of wins and losses over the last 15 or so years for the Syracuse football team, one area where the Orange have remained consistently solid is at runningback. Thousand yard rushers have become pretty commonplace at Syracuse, and the Orange football staff may have their next dynamic back in Dontae Strickland.

Prospect Info: 
#3 RB Dontae Strickland – South Brunswick, New Jersey – South Brunswick High School
6’0, 185lbs
Offers from – Syracuse, Georgia Tech, West Virginia, Rutgers, Virginia, Wake Forest, Indiana, Temple, UMass,

Tale of the Tape

We’ve talked before about how important it is for Syracuse to recruit the state of New Jersey.   Back when Syracuse was at the top of the Big East, former head coach Paul Pasqualoni had a regular presence in the Garden State.  Flash back to June 7th, 2014; assistant coach Bobby Acosta showed his New Jersey prowess when the #1 running back in the state of New Jersey, Dontae Strickland, committed to the Orange.  With the Orange grabbing two highly recruited prospects (with the hopes of grabbing two more), Dontae Strickland was an important get.   In looking at Dontae’s highlight tape, I’m blown away by his stats.  Dontae averaged 11.8 yards per carry, but only averaged 10 rushing attempts and 1 reception per game.  Now, it’s important to know that when you’re in a Wing T offense like Dontae, carries need to be spread around a couple of different backs, but there’s no excuse for an athlete like Dontae to only touch the ball 11 times per game.  When you have an athlete that has a chance to “house it” whenever he touches the ball, you feed the machine.  Dontae has great size at the running back position and shows great speed when getting away from defenders.  While there is no published 40 time for Dontae, its apparent he shows exceptional speed, and accelerates quickly after planting his foot in the ground.  Dontae shows us in this video that he has potential to see playing time for the Orange immediately in the fall.

Let’s take a look at some highlights from Dontae Strickland.  

:31 mark – APB – All.Purpose.Back.   What does it really mean?  There are some people who think all-purpose means someone who can carry the rock and catch balls out of the backfield, enabling them to stay on the field for any offensive situation.  While they aren’t wrong, I tend to think certain skills make a running back an all-purpose back.  What are those skills?  Vision, strength, acceleration, and speed.   As the balls is snapped, we see a cross block between the left tackle and tight end, often used to create a bigger gap for the running back to run through into the second level of the defense.  We also see motion from the other running back to set up option.  This gives the outside linebacker something else to account for, which could bring another defender outside the box, creating a mismatch for Dontae as he is handed the ball for what looks to be a 35 read option (Dontae being the 3 back, with the cross-block intending to open up the five hole for him, and the QB having the option if the defenders flow inside).  Now that we’ve broken down what the play is,  let’s look at how Dontae uses what I called earlier are the skills that make an all-purpose back. 

  1. Vision – He sees the defensive end and linebacker have the left side of the line sealed, and also sees his right guard engaged with his defender, leaving a small hole.  He plants his outside foot and makes his way towards the hole, picking the right angle so the unblocked right-defensive end can’t get to him cleanly in the backfield.
  2. Strength – As he approaches the small hole, he is met by the unblocked defensive end that gets two hands on him, but Dontae possesses excellent strength to get through that arm tackle.  He is then met by a defensive tackle who disengages from the offensive lineman, but Dontae keeps his hips low and feet moving to power through defender.  This shows Dontae is a potentially powerful runner.
  3. Acceleration – As Dontae runs through the missed tackles, we see him start to straighten his torso (what we see throughout the tape as he accelerates).  He gets through a small opening to start his burst and attempt to beat 4 defenders to the end zone.
  4. Speed – As his torso and body become more upright, the jets kick in, and he is on his way to pay-dirt. He shows impressive speed to get away from the defense and pulls away very nicely.  Like a sprinter on a track making his way from low to high on starting blocks, when Dontae kicks his speed into second gear, we see this motion that allows him to pull away from the defense.

Like I said above… All.Purpose.Back.

2:06 mark – An important trait for a running back to possess is the ability to keep his feet moving when they absorb contact.  This allows you to get more yards after contact, and can even help when getting tackled if you can keep your feet moving and fall forward.  We saw this trait exceptionally well with former Syracuse running backs Jerome Smith and Delone Carter.  On this play, Dontae takes the pitch and tries to get to the outside.  When the linebacker cuts off the outside lane, Dontae is forced to cut up towards the middle of the field.  When he does this, he is met by defenders who are running to the ball.  Upon contact, we see Dontae bend his knees and bring his shoulders down lower to the ground.  He is met by a good thud brought with the defender, but he keeps his feet vigorously chopping, which allows him to run through two defenders to get into the end zone.  When running the ball in the red zone, it’s very important to possess the trait of keeping your feet moving and staying low.  It’s how you church out positive yards.  Dontae shows great strength throughout the highlight in playing behind his pads and not taking big hits while running the ball.  It’s very important for a running back to have so he stays in the field.

3:15 mark – If you blink, you may miss why this is such an important highlight.   When coming around on a buck sweep, or any play that brings you outside the tackle box, many players fall into the habit of trying to use pure speed to out run anyone.  Now if you are Chris Johnson in your prime, that may work out quite nicely.  For most players though, outrunning your blockers is a deadly vice for a running back.  When Dontae receives the pitch on this play, you see him bow his run backward for two very quick steps.  This two-step bowing motion allows his blocker to get just enough of the defender to create a positive angle for the runner.  Dontae bowing his run out is a way of allowing the block to get set before he tries to accelerate up field.  Once he sees that his block is there, Dontae gets vertical and is off to the races.  When in the open field, he is a long stride runner and shows that quick acceleration and great speed.  As you can see on the tape, he has a quick safety that is chasing him down with a sound angle.  Unfortunately for the defense, there wasn’t an angle that could be taken to keep up with Dontae’s great speed.

We also see something that Dontae needs to work on in this play.  Throughout the highlight, Dontae holds the ball away from his body when near defenders trying for the tackle.  If you watched any NFL football this season, it’s a very similar ball holding style to Demarco Murray from the Dallas Cowboys.  When you hold the ball away from our body, you can be prone to fumbles being caused by defenders who are trailers on the play.    Dontae needs to make sure the ball is being tucked into his body and being cradled into his bicep. 

4:58 mark – Again, Dontae does a tremendous job at waiting for his blocks to develop.  He slows down his momentum and heads towards he sideline until he sees daylight.  Once the hole opens up, he plants his foot in the ground and is off to the races.  He runs a little high for my liking, but it doesn’t affect him negatively at the moment.  When he cuts, he stays low and powerful, showing very good “one-cut” burst. 

5:18 mark – This is probably my favorite play of Dontae’s highlight.  Upon receiving the handoff, Dontae stays horizontal towards the sideline waiting for the hole to open up.  He is keeping his eyes downfield, which helps him easily set up his next move.  One he sees daylight; he starts to get vertical into the second level.  He sees the linebacker approaching and sets him up perfectly to leave him in a cloud of dust. While the linebacker is pursuing, Dontae says diagonal.  Once the linebacker puts weight on his outside foot while stepping towards the outside, Dontae plants and is gone like he was shot out of a rocket launcher. Donate then shows great vision and bounces the run to the outside again to take it to the house for 6 points.  It’s a play like this that shows how Dontae has a plethora of moves at his disposal.  He doesn’t overthink what’s in front of him or what he’s doing with the ball.  He relies on instinct and ability to set himself free in the open field. 

Final Analysis

Strengths – Dontae is truly a back that can stay on the field for 3 downs a series.  He possesses the skills you want in a complete running back.  His defensive highlight shows he has great hands, his special team highlights show his already exceptional vision, and he shows great power/speed/acceleration in his highlight tape.  If he can stay healthy, he could be an all-star for the Orange.

Areas of Improvements – Dontae runs high, which could cause him back issues in getting hit at the second level.  He needs to make sure he is in open space before turning into his long-stride motion that he relies on to separate himself from defenders.  He also needs to work on cradling the ball a bit better, as stronger players at the next level of football could make him fumble the ball more than he would like.  I think Dontae also needs to work on his lower body strength.  He looks well put together from the waist up, but could become thicker from the waist down.  Once he gets into a strength and conditioning program, there is no reason why he can’t become a 6’0, 205lb running back who you don’t want to take off the field.  Strengthening the lower body will also make Dontae more difficult to tackle and faster in the open field.  

In conclusion, while Dontae’s composite ranking is a 3 star running back; there is one recruiting site that has Dontae as a 4 star player.  He shows a lot on his highlight tape that makes you believe he could be a potential stud at the next level.  When you have a talent who you don’t want to take off the field, there are many reasons to be excited.  With the loss of Prince-Tyson Gulley, there is a starting running back position open for Syracuse.  After underwhelming seasons by believed incumbents George Morris and Devante McFarlane, Dontae could find himself competing for immediate playing time for Syracuse as a true freshman.  One thing is for sure; Dontae and his New Jersey swagger will have the opportunity to show the coaching staff he has what it takes to be a producer from day one.

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Justin is a 2011 graduate from SUNY Buffalo State. Since that time, he spent several years coaching high school football in North Carolina while also working at NC State, and has also served as a head and assistant tennis coach at the Division III and Division I levels. During this tenure coaching high school football, he sent players to continue their football career at Alabama, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Purdue, North Carolina State, East Carolina, and other Division II and III schools.