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The last 15 years or so have been more rough than not for the Syracuse University football program. Starting in 1999, the Orange slowly started fading from the national spotlight and a perennial spot in the Top 25, save for one special season in 2001 that was propelled almost entirely by the greatness of Dwight Freeney. Since then, the Orange have had a few solid seasons, winning eight games twice under Doug Marrone, and getting another bowl win in the first season under Scott Shafer, but otherwise, the last decade and a half has been a period most Syracuse football fans would prefer to forget about.

Enter Robert Washington.

Now, I want to assure you, I’m not putting the cart before the horse here. I realize that we’re nearly a year away from National Signing Day, 2016, and young Mr. Washington may not even select Syracuse to begin with. But I’m having a difficult time remembering a situation in which one recruit could influence the future of a football program the way that Washington could change the course of Syracuse football.

You may think I’m speaking in hyperbole. Maybe I am. But I’m not talking solely about what Washington can do on the field. And let’s get one thing straight: he can do great things on the field. There’s a reason Tom Lemming rates him as one of the top 25 players in the class of 2016, and why he’s in ESPN.com’s Top 300 national recruits. There’s a reason that virtually every program in America is interested in the 5-foot-11, 215 pound running back.

Washington was originally committed to Mississippi State back in 2013, but quickly reopened his recruitment. He’s been a member of the USA Football National Team, playing in the International Bowl and recently scoring a touchdown against Team Canada in January at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. It’s through his high profile, his connections within USA Football, and his readily apparent leadership skills and charisma that he becomes a more important recruit than most for Syracuse football.

Obviously, the Orange would love to land a 4-star running back, beating out the likes of Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, and TCU – as well as his home state Tar Heels – in the process. But there’s more to it than just landing a star prospect at a high value, flashy position. For all of what Washington brings on the field, his value to Syracuse is just as important for what he can bring off the field.

That is to say, he’s a young man who has the ability to potentially set off a domino effect that could help Syracuse land one of the best recruiting classes in program history. I’m not exaggerating, either – two of his close friends are Dwayne Haskins, Jr., and Moe Neal. Haskins is rated by ESPN as the second best QB in America, and already holds in the neighborhood of 40 offers. Neal, a fellow running back, is another ESPN Top 300 recruit and could be the lightning to Washington’s thunder.

And then there’s Washington’s cousin, Aapri, a cornerback in the class of 2017 who is already getting plenty of interest from some big time schools and would be another tremendous asset for the Orange in the class following Robert’s.

This is only the tipping point, as well. Obviously, there’s no guarantee that, should Washington choose Syracuse (and he’s rumored to be making a decision in March), guys like Haskins and Neal would follow, though it should be noted both players hold offers from the Orange. But all three have hinted at playing together in the past.

Earlier today, Washington hinted to Testudo Times, a Maryland athletics website, that this was still the case after receiving an offer from the Terps – particularly in light of the fact that Haskins is a Maryland native who also holds an offer from Maryland:

“It’s nice to have a quarterback and a wide receiver because they help me in the run game. If I have a quarterback that can feed me the rock and a wide receiver that can catch it, defenses can have a tough time stacking the box. So, obviously we were down there talking about colleges and where we might end up.”

It’s obviously going to be a tough hill to climb for Syracuse to land Washington, but as he told us last month, he’s absolutely interested in Syracuse, and loves the legacy of Orange running backs in general and the number 44 in particular. Let’s not beat around the bush here: if Syracuse is going to restore 44, it needs to be now, and it needs to be offered to Washington – a young man with enough sway to set the wheels in motion for a complete program turnaround.

Syracuse is perched precariously on the edge of perpetual mediocrity, and getting back to national respectability. Scott Shafer and his staff have done an admirable job winning over some outstanding recruits – Jake Pickard, Steven Clark, Shy Cullen, Dontae Strickland, Ty Cross, Marquise Blair, among many others. But Robert Washington may wind up being the recruit who can help push the Orange over that edge, and back onto the road toward national prominence.

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Jeff is a 2003 graduate of Syracuse University, and has been published on various websites including Cracked.com, Spike.com, TheSportster.com, Gunaxin.com, and TopTenz.net, among others. His work was featured in the New York Times bestselling book You Might Be a Zombie and Other Bad News. He's got a wife, and a toddler he's brainwashing to love Syracuse. Jeff's a pretty great guy, overall, and would never steal your car. Follow him on Twitter: @jekelish