It’s pretty easy to find the biggest key to Syracuse’s success in 2013, and it wasn’t the emerging quarterback or the star defensive tackle. It was the ground game.
In five games in which Syracuse averaged 4.0 yards per carry or less, the Orange were 0-5 and averaged 12.6 points per game.
In the eight games in which Syracuse averaged better than 4.0 yards per carry, it was 7-1 and averaged 29 points per game.
The Orange actually had one of the better ground attacks in the country last season. They finished fourth in the ACC in rushing and 37th nationally, averaging 195.3 yards per game on the ground. In third-and-short situations, only four AQ-conference schools converted on the ground at a higher rate. Against ACC foes, only Georgia Tech’s option and Boston College (with Heisman finalist Andre Williams) averaged more yards per carry last season than Syracuse.
Of course, a big portion of that success was courtesy of Jerome Smith, who’s now off to the NFL. So, what’s to be made of the Orange ground game for 2014 without its leading rusher?
Looking at the personnel returning, Syracuse shouldn’t suffer too much of a setback. Prince-Tyson Gulley, Smith’s change-of-pace partner in 2013, is back, along with younger runners George Morris II and Devante McFarlane. So, too, is four-fifths of the offensive line, with senior Rob Trudo moving from guard to center to replace departed Macky MacPherson.
“We’ve got good ammunition there,” Orange coach Scott Shafer said. “Then you factor in the ability of the quarterback to run it, too, and I’m excited to see our running game progress forward.”
And that quarterback, of course, is a big factor in the ground game.
Terrel Hunt struggled at times as a passer last season, and as he begins his first spring as the Orange’s starter, his biggest hurdle will be able to develop his arm. But on game days, there’s no question Hunt’s legs were a difference-maker. For the season, Hunt totaled 500 yards on the ground -- fourth-most among ACC quarterbacks.
In fact, Hunt’s legs more than made up for some shaky passing performances last season.
When he ran routinely, Hunt’s passing numbers were way down, but it didn’t affect the bottom line for the Orange, who still won four of those five games.
“Any time you have a quarterback that can get yards with his feet, that’s important,” Shafer said.
It might be even more important in 2014 without Smith.
While Gulley, McFarlane and Morris offer solid alternatives on the ground, Hunt proved a valuable between-the-tackles runner last season, something Syracuse figures to miss without Smith.
(*Rushing numbers courtesy of Stats, LLC.)
While the conventional wisdom is that Smith’s departure leaves a vacancy between the tackles, the numbers suggest he wasn’t exactly irreplaceable. While he did perform far better running downhill than outside the tackles (3.9 yards per carry), Gulley, McFarlane and, of course, Hunt all showed an ability to gain the tough yards, too.
In fact, the bulk of Syracuse’s success on third-and-short last season came not because of Smith (who converted 11 of 18 tries), but the rest of the backfield, which picked up a first down on a whopping 17 of 20 attempts needing 3 yards or fewer (including 6 of 7 for Hunt).
Yes, there will be plenty of turnover in 2014 for Syracuse, which loses some key members from last year’s Texas Bowl champs. But on the ground, where the Orange lived and died last season, there’s every reason to think they’ll be just as good -- and perhaps even better if Hunt can use his arm to keep extra defenders out of the box -- in 2014.