Sean Tucker rose from preseason afterthought to Atlantic Coast Conference Running Back of the Week in three career games, elevating the entire Syracuse University football offense in the process.
Tucker ran for 112 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 24 carries to spark the once-stagnant scoring unit and help SU (1-2 overall and ACC) to a 37-20 win over Georgia Tech in its most recent game Sept. 26.
He is expected to get another opportunity to shine when Syracuse returns from the bye to host Duke (0-4) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in the Carrier Dome. The game will be televised on YES Network locally and no fans will be allowed in attendance due to state COVID-19 mandates.
Tucker — the 5-foot-10, 202-pound true freshman from Owings Mills, Md. — is listed second on SU’s weekly depth chart, marking his first appearance on the list this season.
He was initially pegged for a bench role behind RBs Jawhar Jordan and Markenzy Pierre before breaking through in SU’s last outing to garner ACC weekly honors. Entering preseason training camp, Tucker was further buried behind redshirt senior Abdul Adams and junior Jarveon Howard, both of whom eventually opted out of the season due to COVID-19.
“I couldn’t imagine it but just being the next one up, having that mentality, because you never know what could happen at any time,” Tucker said via Zoom during his first media appearance this week.
“Any moment you can have your name called, so just always being into practice, learning the plays, and staying focused, that’s what helped me get through it.”
Tucker made an instant splash for the Orange when he broke free for a 38-yard touchdown run early in the first quarter against Georgia Tech, accounting for the first SU touchdown of the year and the longest rushing play of the season. Tucker was wrapped up and brought down on the play but landed on the defender then kept running to the end zone.
Tucker added a four-yard scamper later in the quarter and the unit rolled from that point forward. In addition to posting its best scoring effort, SU finished with season highs of 163 team rushing yards and 357 yards of offense. Syracuse had averaged just 186.5 yards of total offense through its first two games.
“It was a good touchdown, a good run, but none of that would be possible without my O-line up front opening up the holes for me to run through and block for me,” Tucker said. “After the (first) touchdown, it was fun celebrating with my team and eventually, we got the win, so everything was fun and throughout, we had fun with it.”
Through its first two games — losses to No. 8/9 North Carolina and Pittsburgh, then-ranked No. 25 — SU received a combined 33 carries for 78 yards (2.36 yards-per-carry average) from Jordan and Pierre in the backfield.
Tucker first emerged late in the loss to the Panthers, handling four carries for 23 yards, including the team’s previous season-long rush of 12 yards entering his breakout game against Georgia Tech.
Tucker was a three-star prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings coming out of Calvert Hall High School. He was rated as the No. 58 RB nationally in his class and the No. 27 player overall from Maryland and had also received offers from Wisconsin and Rutgers.
He became the first SU true freshman to rush for 100 yards in a game since Jordan Fredericks accomplished the feat in 2015 against Rhode Island, and the first to do so against an FBS opponent since Antwon Bailey recorded 126 against Notre Dame in 2008.
Tucker was just the 11th true freshman in program history to eclipse 100 yards rushing in a game.
“As he’s slowly coming along, we want to make sure that he slowly gets it right,” SU head coach Dino Babers said. “We think we have a lot of good backs but it just goes to show you, this guy may be No. 1 and this guy may be No. 3, and that (No. 3) guy gets an opportunity and you go: ‘Woah.’ We saw those things out of Sean before, but he really showed off (last game), so obviously he’s going to get an opportunity to show off again.”
Tucker will look to follow up his strong performance against the Blue Devils, who surrendered 286 rushing yards in a 49-6 loss to the Orange on Nov. 16 last year at Wallace-Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. Moe Neal and Howard each ran for 115 yards in that SU victory.
“The running game is everything,” SU senior wide receiver Nykeim Johnson said. “A team’s identity starts with the running game because if you can run the ball good, you can for surely pass the ball well, so we need to make sure that we start good in the running game so that the passing game can come forward.”
CISCO STATUS UNCERTAIN
The health status of Preseason All-American junior safety Andre Cisco remained unclear through Thursday night entering SU’s game against Duke.
Babers confirmed that Cisco suffered a “lower-body extremity injury in the pregame,” when he collided with a teammate prior to SU’s Sept. 26 victory over Georgia Tech before the bye week.
Cisco sat out the win in which SU compiled four interceptions — the Orange’s highest single-game mark since 2006 — and five total takeaways. Cisco is the FBS active career leader in interceptions (13) and ranks fourth all-time for SU.
“In 39 years, I’ve never seen that happen,” Babers said of Cisco’s pregame injury. “I don’t want to go much further than that because it’s a huge advantage to the opponent we’re about to play, but I’ve seen him every day and he’s smiling and excited, so we’ll see.”
Babers also said that the team is waiting for “an owie to clear up,” in regards to redshirt-junior defensive back and Manlius native Eric Coley, who also missed last game with an unspecified injury.
When asked of offensive linemen who have yet to play due to injuries this season — most notably, expected starter, Dakota Davis — Babers said there was no change in their status and he had no timeline for potential returns.
“We’re waiting like the father with the prodigal son, we have open arms waiting for those guys to come back,” Babers said.
Syracuse announced multiple schedule updates via its social media platforms this week.
The SU-Notre Dame matchup scheduled for Dec. 5 was announced as a 2:30 p.m. kickoff time and will air on national TV on NBC. The first Atlantic Coast Conference clash between the programs will be played at Notre Dame Stadium in Indiana.
The SU road game at Louisville slated for Nov. 20 to be televised on ESPN was moved up slightly. The game will now kick off at 7 p.m. instead of its original 7:30 start time.
SU CAMPUS COVID SPIKE
Syracuse paused all in-person activities on campus Tuesday except for classes, labs, and sports. The school reported 45 new positive COVID-19 test results as it announced the actions, which did not impact the football program.
SU has not reported any positive test results within the football team this season, though it is not required to do so as a private institution. Players and staff in close contact are tested three times weekly, per ACC rules. The kickoff of its home opener against Georgia Tech was delayed 30 minutes to confirm negative test results.