It may only be February 23, but the Syracuse football team is getting back to the grind early this year – earlier than any other team in the ACC, as a matter of fact – in an effort to get a head start on installing the new offensive and defensive systems under head coach Dino Babers. With practice kicking off this morning, here are five players I’m going to be keeping an eye on throughout spring ball.
I mean, of course. The thing that made Dino Babers such a hot commodity as a head coach is his offense, and that offense is driven primarily by a potent passing attack. There isn’t a lot of experience at the quarterback position at Syracuse, with Dungey and Austin Wilson as the only scholarship players to have thrown a pass in a game, along with walk-on Zack Mahoney. Rex Culpepper comes in highly touted but recovering from an ACL injury, and while I fully expect him to compete for the backup job, the starting gig is Dungey’s to lose.
I’ve talked at length about what kind of career the Oregon native could wind up having, and he seems like far and away the best option right now for the starting QB job. Now, the question is, how quickly will he pick up the new system? Considering he came in and got on the field in game one last season (and he would have even if Terrel Hunt hadn’t gotten hurt), and the last staff praised his intelligence and ability to learn on the fly, I think it’s safe to say he’s going to take to the new system extremely well.
Defensive end is by far the thinnest position on the roster, and Jake Pickard is going to be the most high profile player at the position whether he likes it or not. Right now, Pickard – who, you’ll recall, chose Syracuse over Wisconsin and Michigan – has a frame that reminds me an awful lot of former Syracuse and Indianapolis Colts defensive end Josh Thomas. He’s clocking in at about 6-foot-6, 260 these days, and I’d wager he’ll start the year closer to the 265-270 range.
Effort and tenacity will never be an issue with Pickard; it’ll be more about how quickly he’s able to catch up to the speed of the college game. Getting a redshirt season was big, as it allowed him a chance to compete against Power 5-level talent on a daily basis, which will hopefully have him ready for the quickness and strength he’s going to be squaring off against on game day.
It remains to be seen exactly where Erv Philips will fit into the new offensive system, and the official roster on Cuse.com isn’t providing many hints, listing the dynamic junior-to-be as a WR/RB. That seems to indicate that even the coaching staff isn’t sure about exactly how Erv fits into the offense, and it’s entirely possible he could continue in something of a hybrid position, getting carries and catches in equal measure.
One thing is pretty clear, though: Philips is a playmaker. He’s also someone I expect to take Moe Neal under his wing, since Neal is basically a younger, faster version of Erv. It will be interesting for now, however, to see exactly where Philips lines up when the Spring Game rolls around.
I already talked about one defensive end, so why not another? Dunkelberger has a chance to make an immediate impact with his switch from tight end to defensive end. At 6-foot-5 and about 230 pounds, he’s a little light right now – but that’s because for the entire offseason, he was trying to slim down to play a pure pass-catching role. Now that he’s allowed to gain that weight back, I don’t think it’ll be tough for him to get up to 245-250 by the start of the 2016 season.
What makes Dunkelberger an intriguing prospect is his combination of size and quickness. He’s got very solid footspeed, especially for a defensive lineman. We all saw how Ron Thompson’s quickness from his days as a tight end translated to defense, and allowed him to consistently find his way into the offensive backfield. I’m not going to predict that Dunkelberger will have the same kind of impact as Sugar Bear, but I do think that the former JUCO tight end has a chance to be an impact player, depending on how well he’s able to pick up the defense.
The secondary has been a bit of a mess the last couple years, and it seems like forever since the Orange had legitimate shut-down corners. I could have gone with a number of young players in the spring to pay close attention to in the secondary, but something tells me that Cordell Hudson has a chance to become a legitimately strong option at one of the CB positions. Between he and Juwan Dowels, there’s certainly some talent. Now it’s just a matter of seeing it translate to on-field production.
Hudson showed some flashes last season, with 42 tackles and three interceptions. At 5-foot-11 he’s got solid size, and he’s certainly a good athlete. If the Orange defense is going to take a big step forward this year, a lot of that is going to fall on the shoulders of players like Hudson and Dowels, and their ability to limit the kinds of big plays that killed Syracuse last year.