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Backfield answering the call for Syracuse

10/17/2013

You could say that DeAndre Smith did a solid-enough job of breaking the ice with his players upon his arrival to Syracuse.

Taking over what was arguably the Orange's deepest position group, Smith, the first-year running backs coach, had a number of challenges for his top-two rushers, Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley.

First things first, the coach told Smith, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2012: You need to get in the end zone more.

"I didn't think he did a great job with that," DeAndre Smith said. "A big back, a guy that needed to produce in that regard, who rushed for a lot of yards -- but I didn't see the production at the end with touchdowns."

As for Jerome Smith's reaction?

"He just broke that out and put that on the table: More touchdowns. I was like, 'Oh man,' " the junior said with a laugh.

So far, so good.

Smith leads ACC skill players with nine total touchdowns, including eight rushing, this after reaching the end zone just three times last season despite a 1,171-yard campaign. He is currently fourth in his new conference in rushing yards (482), anchoring a two-headed attack that has the Orange currently ranked third in the league in rushing and 23rd nationally.

Smith and Tyson-Gulley each eclipsed the 100-yard mark in last Saturday's 24-10 upset at NC State, and they have been the bedrocks of a Syracuse offense that has had to find its way offensively through the season's first-half after an early quarterback switch.

"We like what we're doing, but I'm not going to say we're comfortable, because once you get comfortable you start to slip up," left tackle Sean Hickey said. "Trust me, even though we ran for 362 yards, a lot of people got chewed up in film because there could've been more yards -- if one person stays on their block it's another 10 yard gain, if one person misses an assignment that's a wrong play. So there's a lot of correcting going on. There's a lot of trying to make it better, and that's how we're going to continue to get better."

For Gulley, the demand from his new coach was to become a better every-down back and to improve his ball skills, a challenge the senior saw as more of a mental hurdle than physical one despite the step-up in play to the ACC this year.

Gulley rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown against the Wolfpack on just nine carries. He has 316 yards on 57 carries so far this season to go with 11 grabs for 47 yards and a touchdown, slightly ahead of last year's regular-season pace before his break-out performance (269 total yards) in the Pinstripe Bowl.

"I prepared myself more mentally this year than I've ever prepared, knowing exactly what the defense are going to bring and knowing exactly what I have to do when it comes to executing plays better," Gulley said. "Because really and truly that's what it really comes down to in this league: Who's going to execute and who's going to play tough?"

Smith spent extra time in the weight room this offseason to prepare for the move from the Big East, adding about 17 pounds to what was a 218-pound frame before arriving to summer workouts and admitting, "I can't do this." He says he is now around his listed weight of 226, a comfortable margin that has him on track to become just the fifth back in school history to post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

The backs have kept the mood light when necessary throughout this 3-3 campaign, getting into enough run-ins with the offensive linemen for Smith to earn the nickname "Hollywood" and Gulley to be referred to as somewhat of a class clown.

Hickey informed a reporter of Smith's moniker this week and immediately told the back about it afterward.

"Now that a little bit more press and stuff is starting to come around for the running backs, they run with it," Smith quipped.

Consider the camaraderie is a by-product of their new position coach, whom Gulley said is like an older version of the backs, one with an admittedly better sense of style. The running backs often joke among themselves about what DeAndre Smith may show up to work in, be it a new designer suit or a different color combination -- and how he'll rub it in at times, too.

"It doesn't even have to be a suit sometimes, sometimes he'll have a new pair of sneakers on and we'll be like, 'Coach, where do you get those from?' " Jerome Smith said. "He's like, 'I can't tell you. I can't tell you. I can't tell you. I made them myself.'

"He's a fashionable guy."