Last week, ESPN writer (and Syracuse alum) David Hale tweeted out what he thought were the biggest question marks for each program in the ACC. While I typically enjoy Hale’s work, I found myself scratching my head about at his choice for the Orange.
Biggest question marks/area of need for each ACC Atlantic team:— A David Hale joint (@DavidHaleESPN) August 17, 2018
BC – QB
Clemson – Week in/Week out focus
FSU – LB
Lou – Van Gorder
NCSU – DBs (esp CB)
Cuse – DBs (esp FS/SS)
WF – QB
Now, Syracuse has certainly struggled in the secondary for… awhile. It’s hard to remember a time when the Orange didn’t have some trouble defending the pass. And while that could still be the case again this year, it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s going to be a bigger question mark than other units, simply because there’s experience, depth, and talent (on paper) in the defensive backfield.
For starters, Antwan Cordy is back and, hopefully, can remain healthy to provide experience, tackling, and leadership. Christopher Fredrick has the makings of a borderline All-ACC corner, and Scoop Bradshaw has certainly flashed at times in his career. Evan Foster brings experience and tackling ability, as well.
Add in players like Devon Clarke, Eric Coley, Iffy Melifonwu, and newcomers like Cam Jonas, Andre Cisco, and Trill Williams, and the secondary certainly seems like it’s on the verge of taking a big step in the right direction. By all accounts, Trill Williams has a chance to be a star, and I’ve been high on Melifonwu for awhile. His combination of size, at 6-foot-3, and athleticism is incredibly enticing.
So I’m going to go ahead and say that, while I understand where Hale is coming from on this given our struggles defending the pass in our recent history, I disagree. And while the defensive line has been banged up, I also don’t think they’re a particularly big question mark, simply because when they’re healthy, there’s some real talent and experience in that group.
Chris Slayton is going to play on Sundays. Alton Robinson has a chance to be a dynamic pass rusher. McKinley Williams, Kendall Coleman, Josh Black, Brandon Berry… these are all guys who have solid in-game experience and could help make this one of the better D-lines that Syracuse has had in awhile.
So the biggest question mark, at least for me, is the linebacking corps. Syracuse lost all of its starters at linebacker, and with Tyrell Richards working with the defensive ends while Zach Morton gets healthy, the LBs are even thinner. Yes, there’s potential in that group, of course. Ryan Guthrie, Andrew Armstrong, Shy Cullen, Nadarius Fagan, Kadeem Trotter, Lakiem Williams, and Kielan Whitner are all guys who could wind up contributing in a relatively deep rotation. Juan Wallace, from the buzz coming out of camp, is the MIKE of the future for the Orange, and Tre Allison has athleticism and talent.
It could end up being a strong group. But we have no way of knowing who will step up, and who will stand out. There’s so little on-field experience in that group that it’s next to impossible to predict how good they’ll actually be. The fact that the Orange are planning on playing a lot of 4-2-5 this year underscores the fact that the coaching staff is similarly unsure of exactly what they’ve got in the room at LB.
The first 2-deep will be coming out soon and it’ll be fascinating to see how things have shaken out after fall camp and scrimmages. Given the uncertainty in that unit, it seems abundantly clear that should be the group signifying the biggest question mark on the team.
At least, defensively. Because the offense has just as big a question mark at wide receiver. Obviously, quarterback is going to be the strength of the team, offensively or defensively. With Eric Dungey, Tommy DeVito, Chance Amie, and Rex Culpepper, that’s the strongest group of QBs that Syracuse has had in a long time. Unlike the last couple years, there won’t be as big a drop-off if Dungey can’t stay healthy. No disrespect to Zack Mahoney, who had guts to spare, but DeVito and Amie in particular appear to be head and shoulders above him from a talent perspective.
Running back, while not necessarily a huge strength, is a group where we know what we’ve got (more or less). We basically know what to expect from Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal. We hope that either Markenzy Pierre or Jarveon Howard emerges to provide some additional depth and production. With improved offensive line play (and that’s another group where, for the most part, we know what we’ve got, and is way down the list of question marks), there’s no reason to think that our running backs can’t combine to collectively rush for 1,300-1,500 yards this season (hopefully more).
Receiver, however, is a huge question mark for the exact same reasons that linebackers are a question mark. We lost the two most productive receivers in program history in Steve Ishmael and Erv Philips, and while a couple of guys have gotten decent experience (Devin Butler, Sean Riley, Nykeim Johnson), it’s hard to figure out who might actually emerge as a star in this offense.
And this offense is designed to turn receivers into stars. Butler caught 33 passes last year, and Riley and Johnson each caught eight. That’s not a lot of returning production. Ravian Pierce is one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the nation, and he should help take some of the pressure off the receivers, but someone is going to have to step up. Jamal Custis, for all his size and athleticism, has just 13 career receptions heading into his senior season.
So who will emerge? Will Custis finally live up to his on-paper potential? Will Devin Butler become a more consistent pass catcher? Maybe Sharod Johnson, the dynamic playmaker out of Miami, will step into the spotlight? You’re almost certainly going to see at least one true freshman play, particularly with the new redshirt rules (for those unfamiliar, a true freshman can now play in up to four games without burning his redshirt). Will Anthony Queeley or Ed Hendrix live up to their fall camp hype and crack the 2-deep?
Like I said, there are a lot of question marks at receiver. There are a lot of question marks at linebacker. Given the way this offense is designed to turn receivers into stars, and with the way the Orange have struggled defensively over the past few years, for me, at least, it’s hard not to view the linebackers as the biggest question mark on the team.
And hopefully when those questions start to get answered, we’ll love the results.