Position Preview: Running Back

CuseNation.com continues its series in breaking down each position before training camp begins. Today, we look at the running back position.

With no disrespect to the top two fullbacks listed on Syracuse’s pre-camp depth chart, Clay Cleveland and Trevon Burke, CuseNation.com will focus on the ball carriers each will likely rotate in to block for in this feature.

Current Depth Chart

Starter: Prince-Tyson Gulley

Reserves: Adonis Ameen-Moore, George Morris II, DeVante McFarlane, Ervin Phillips, Greg Tobias

The Incumbents

2013’s leading rusher, Jerome Smith, is battling for a spot with the Atlanta Falcons and figures to be the only significant loss among the top five rushers from that campaign. While he was the leader in the clubhouse with 914 yards, quarterback Terrel Hunt (4.7 yards per carry), Gulley (5.5) and McFarlane (6.1) each found the end zone and combined for more than 1,000 yards while Morris contributed 334 of his own, although his average of 4.2 YPC was the only one of the five lower than Smith’s.

With plenty of experience and balance returning, including Moore, listed at 260 pounds on the pre-camp depth chart, it seems as if the unit will again be one that doesn’t have to lean on one go-to guy unlike the Delone Carter and Antwon Bailey years.

The expectation is balance, which could be a reason Ameen-Moore is listed behind the much smaller and shiftier Gulley. Morris is closer to his mold and McFarlane is a combo back that can elude in the open field as well as showcase his power.

Breakout Potential

While Gulley, who has never been asked to be the lead back, will likely snag the most carries, McFarlane seems to be the reserve with the biggest chance to turn in some “wow” games like Gulley did as a backup in the past. He and Morris have been linked since each signed in the same class, but Morris has been a solid running back that has played the position for some time. McFarlane was a quarterback and defensive back in high school, and he played some safety early in his SU career as well.

With the junior focused solely on one position for the first time in his football life, he could only feel more comfortable, especially with some continuity within the offense as George McDonald and company head into the second season of leadership after Doug Marrone’s mass exodus in which he brought then-offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett along with him to the Buffalo Bills. McFarlane has had the chance to get into a routine at one position and it could be his time to flourish.

Freshman Impact

Despite signing Phillips in the class of 2014, there isn’t expected to be much frosh impact this fall at arguably the deepest position on the SU roster. Phillips, a three-star in the cycle, will almost certainly be a redshirt candidate barring a camp injury to one of the four experienced ball carriers. With Gulley and Ameen-Moore entering their senior seasons and the Morris/McFarlane combo slated to be juniors, Phillips could see significant touches as early as 2015.

Most Important Player

It’s still Gulley.

The scrappy senior, who runs bigger than his frame suggests with the open-field vision and elusiveness that has made him a fan favorite, should be an all-purpose nightmare for opposing defenses in 2014. If SU continues to progress in an uptempo fashion, as expected, a guy like Gulley can gash the edges behind a deep offensive line early in the clock. He’s also an improved pass catcher and blocker, so don’t expect an even rotation between he and the experienced group of reserves.

In an offense without tremendous explosion on the outside, at least in its returning group, Gulley will be a key for opposing defenses heading into each week, so he’ll have to earn every yard he can get.

Projected Starter

Gulley will lead the team in carries, but the bigger question could be, who will be No. 2? Will it be one of the juniors, or will Ameen-Moore continue his trend from the spring, where he was praised more times than not by the coaching staff before landing at No. 2 on the pre-camp depth chart? Is it a smokescreen, like many suggest, or is the 260-pounder to be the thunder to Gulley’s lightning?

Everyone remembers the tank package from a few years back, where AAM controlled the goal-line and short-yardage line of scrimmage for seemingly easy totes, but he was more impressive a season earlier, as a young sophomore helping to create a spark off of the bench like a sixth man in the NBA. Something similar could be expected, but he may take more carries away from the junior combo of Morris and McFarlane than most think.

Either way, the running back position is in good shape for Syracuse heading into 2014. It has experience, speed, size, power and some versatility within it. If the Orange offense is to do some damage in the ACC, this group will have plenty to do with it.

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