It’s not difficult to figure out why Syracuse football fans are looking at the world through orange-colored glasses these days. For the first time in a long time – since I was a student at SU, to be specific – the Orange football team is nationally relevant. Coming off a 10-3 season, a bowl win, and a national ranking, Dino Babers has his squad ready to continue its ascent up the ACC ladder.
But there are question marks up and down the 2019 roster, many at key positions. From inexperienced but talented underclassmen, to talented but top-heavy units, it feels like this year’s success or failure is balancing on a very fine edge. A key injury here or there could shift the narrative dramatically as we continue on into the season.
As we look at this year’s keys to success (or lack thereof), you always have to start at the quarterback position. Gone is Eric Dungey, the imperfect gunslinger with the heart of a lion who was literally the type of QB who would throw an interception and then force a fumble to get the ball back moments later. Stepping in under center is Tommy DeVito, who Orange fans have been getting more and more excited about since the former 4-star recruit finished second among the QBs in attendance at the Elite 11 camp.
We saw DeVito a bit last year, and at times he looked fantastic. Other timers… not so much. (Looking at you, Notre Dame debacle.) This year will be Tommy’s third year in Dino’s system, and the talented QB has the keys this year. The issue here, of course is twofold: what will happen if DeVito struggles? Who does Dino turn to if the redshirt sophomore gets injured? Lack of quality quarterback depth is something Orange fans are all too familiar with. Remember when Mitch Freaking Kimble actually got significant playing time?
While I won’t get into the behind the scenes stuff with Chance Amie, losing his talent as a backup could wind up being a big blow as far as on the field stuff goes. At this point, Orange fans have no idea what to expect from Clayton Welch, while Rex Culpepper basically is what he is at this point and David Summers is a true freshman who will redshirt barring something wholly unexpected. (Let’s put it this way: if David Summers sees the field this year, something has probably gone horribly wrong with our season.)
There’s certainly reason for optimism from the quarterback position with DeVito firing the ball around, but he’s got to become a more consistently accurate passer to make the offense sing. Of course, it’s not all on him to get the passing game going. And that leads us to our next potential issue: the offensive line.
It’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason: football is won in the trenches. How well the Orange offense performs is going to rely heavily on offensive line play. While Ryan Alexander is expected to be a strong replacement at one of the tackle positions, there are questions about depth – especially if Sam Heckel remains sidelined for much longer – at several other positions.
Airon Servais is the leader of the group and considered by a number of people to be the best and most versatile offensive lineman on the team, but if he has to shift inside and play center in Heckel’s absence, it hurts the rest of the line since it means Servais can’t be plugged in at right tackle. That means an inexperienced player is going to be holding down the fort at one of the key positions in protecting Tommy DeVito. That’s potentially bad news, as DeVito is a fine athlete but nowhere near the threat to run Dungey was, and there were plenty of times Eric made something out of nothing when protection broke down. That’s not going to happen with Tommy.
But football is symbiotic, and it’s not just the line that will help out the passing game. Namely, the rushing attack. This is a deep and talented stable of running backs with Moe Neal, Abdul Adams, and Jarveon Howard forming a three-headed monster – not to mention the potential contribution from electric freshman Jawhar Jordan. The buzz I’ve heard so far is that the offensive line is better in run blocking than pass protection (not to say it’s bad in pass protection), and that combined with this strong group of runners means the Orange could have a dominant season on the ground. That takes tremendous pressure off of DeVito if it comes to fruition, as well as the team’s receivers (another very talented group; expect a big, big season from Trishton Jackson and watch for Courtney Jackson to be this year’s version of Taj Harris as a true frosh who explodes onto the scene).
Flipping over to the defensive side of the ball, we’ve got two of the most talented position groups on the entire roster in the defensive line and secondary, sandwiching an inexperienced linebacker group that has more questions than answers as we head into the season.
The defensive line is arguably the best unit on the team, but is one of those top-heavy position groups I mentioned before. We’ve been collectively holding our breath every since hearing about McKinley Williams getting injured, with the realization hitting that outside of Williams, Josh Black, and KJ Ruff, we don’t really know what to expect at the defensive tackle position. Losing Chris Slayton to the NFL is a big blow to that position, and the Orange need their three proven commodities to stay healthy throughout the year.
If there’s one specific position that has a chance to be among the nation’s best, it’s defensive end. Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman are quite possibly the best pass rushing duo in the nation, and there’s solid depth behind them with Kingsley Jonathan, Brandon Berry, and more than like Tyrell Richards lining up on the edge. (While I’d love to see Richards remain at linebacker, he’s being trained as a bit of a hybrid and a pure edge rusher… any chance to take advantage of his excellent athleticism is fine by me, frankly.) While Robinson and Coleman are a cut above the rest of the unit, the drop-off isn’t nearly as significant, so while Orange fans don’t want to see their star tandem get dinged up, it feels like a unit that can survive a little bit of wear and tear better than the DT position.
It’s amazing to look at Syracuse’s secondary, meanwhile, and realize that after a decade of futility at the defensive back position, it may be the deepest unit on the team. Between Andre Cisco, Iffy Melifonwu, Chris Fredrick, Scoop Bradshaw, and Trill Williams, the Orange are long, athletic, and talented, and we haven’t even gotten to guys like Antwan Cordy, Cameron Jonas, Carl Jones, Devon Clarke, Allen Stritzinger, or Eric Coley yet. While the team got burned a few more times than any of us would like last year, it’s hard not to feel more comfortable with the status of our secondary now than just about any time since the days of Donovin Darius and Tebucky Jones.
It’s harder to find as much optimism surrounding the linebacking unit, though, simply because we just don’t know what to expect. Outside of Andrew Armstrong, none of the linebackers have significant game experience at this level, unless you want to count Lakiem Williams’s contributions on special teams. We’re at a point heading into the season where it not only wouldn’t be a surprise, but is fully expected that true freshmen Mikel Jones and Lee Kpogba will likely see the field for significant snaps. Juan Wallace was a talented prospect coming out of high school and saw some time on special teams last season as well, but so far we haven’t seen what he can do in Brian Ward’s defense. Of all the units on the team, linebacker is the biggest question mark for the 2019 Orange.
So that brings us back to the original question: what are realistic expectations for this year’s team? While the schedule sets up nicely for a strong campaign, it feels a little unfair to expect a repeat of last year’s 10 wins. That’s not an easy task in college football. Just ask Donovan McNabb, whose teams – for as talented as they were – never won more than 9 games in a year.
Given the question marks surrounding inexperience and depth, it feels like the most reasonable bar to set is eight wins. Could the team crack double digits again? Absolutely. The non-conference schedule is not as strong as last season, obviously, but it’s hard to know what to expect from several ACC schools, most notably Florida State. Was last year an anomaly for the Seminoles, or are they truly a program trending down?
I’m going to go ahead and predict that, if Tommy DeVito stays healthy and the offensive line can gel, this is a team that will go 9-4 this season, with all four losses coming against ACC programs. Do I feel great about that prediction? Not particularly, because four conferences losses feels like a lot, and this is a team that could easily win 10 or 11 games if things break right. But given how dismal the last 15 years of Syracuse football have been (outside of a couple high water marks like last year, obviously, and the 2012 squad), it’d be impossible to be disappointed with a 9-4 campaign.
It’s all about managing expectations and keeping them realistic, folks. And given where Syracuse was just a few years ago, the fact that 9 wins is not only realistic, but kind of expected? Damn. How far we’ve come. Maybe we truly are a relevant program again.