Last season’s juniors are now this season’s seniors, and with that comes extra responsibility and expectations. In the ACC, while there were plenty of players selected in the NFL Draft, the conference still returns a strong group of seniors — many of whom are set to make a strong impact in their final seasons of eligibility.
Over these few weeks, we’re going team-by-team in the ACC to identify the “standout senior” that’s key to his respective squad, and why he’s so important. Think we should’ve featured another player, though? Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments.
Jerome Smith’s not the only key senior in the Syracuse offense — in fact, he’s not even the only key senior running back. But as last season showed, the Orange were markedly better when he performed well, and with all the buzz about the SU ground game this season, all conversations must start with Smith.
Syracuse was 6-1 when Smith racked up 90 or more yards — the only loss being a turnover-riddled disaster against Cincinnati in which he ran for 116 yards. And while that loss stung, it was right in the midst of Smith and the entire SU running game hitting their respective strides; the most important factor in the team’s turnaround from 2-4 midseason to 8-5 by the end. Now, without a proven passing game to drive things, it’ll be up to Smith and fellow senior back Prince-Tyson Gulley to keep the offense on pace with last year’s prolific attack. Both showed off how they could function in featured roles during December’s Pinstripe Bowl (Smith, in particular, amassed 152 rushing yards on 29 carries), and this team could be relying on similar production from both moving forward.
But is that realistic?
For Smith, it would appear so. Once he started receiving a consistent number of carries in 2012, he seemed to flourish in his role as an impact runner. At 5’11” and 213 pounds, he’s a bit of a bruiser, but when paired with the lightning quick Gulley, it’s an exciting mix. Smith can be productive on limited carries (still had over five yards per rush last year), but ideally, you’re looking at him as the featured rusher at 20 carries or so. He ran for 95 yards or more in all seven games in which he saw 18 or more touches, and it’s likely the coaching staff’s already caught on to that. What they will have to work on a bit, however, is his involvement in the passing game.
It’s not as if Smith was ineffective in the passing game. He had eight catches for 83 yards on the year (34 of which came on one reception). Smith was also fairly sure-handed when targeted; it’s just that he wasn’t seen as a receiving option all that often. With last year’s glut of receivers, plus Gulley and H-Back Ashton Broyld, there were only so many passes QB Ryan Nassib could throw everyone’s way. But now, with some questions at receiver, Smith could elevate his game both as a collegiate and potential draft pick by developing his pass-catching to become a better threat out of the backfield. He’s quick enough, with a low center of gravity that makes him tough to take down in the open field. Plus, if it’s a moderately used wrinkle in the offense (think 25 catches or so), there’s a lot of upside to the move as it catches team off guard while they’re focusing on the various other options out there. Make no mistake — it’s not essential that Smith catch a lot of passes this year. He’ll still be among the top five rushers in the ACC. But if another factor makes the difference between five wins and seven this season, why not give it a try?