Today’s a big day for Syracuse University football fans, as fall camp opens for head coach Scott Shafer and the Orange. Syracuse heads into 2015 ready to bounce back from a 3-9 season a year ago, and while some of the answers to questions about why last year was such a struggle are well documented (injuries and an inept offensive system, most directly), this season opens with a new set of questions.
1. Which Terrel Hunt Will We Get?
Terrel Hunt is back from a broken leg that sidelined him for half of last year, and it’s good to have a seasoned veteran back behind center after shuffling three equally raw quarterbacks in and out last year. But we’re still not entirely sure what we’ve got in the fifth year senior, who’s been up and down even when completely healthy. Hunt’s running ability has never been a question mark, but obviously that’s not the primary concern for a QB.
Even during the 2013 campaign, when Hunt came off the bench to lead Syracuse to a bowl game, he had a long stretch of inadequate quarterback play before ending the season with a few strong games in a row. In 2014, even before his injury, the struggling Hunt came back. But here’s the thing: during the 2013, the heavy speculation is that during the time Hunt struggled, George McDonald was calling the plays. In the midst of that solid run to cap off the season, however, the heavy speculation is that Tim Lester was secretly running the offense. Now that Lester is officially the play caller, we might see the “good” Terrel Hunt on a more consistent basis.
2. What’s Tim Lester’s Offense Look Like?
And that leads us nicely into the second big question heading into camp. There’s been a lot of hullaballoo about what a shit show George McDonald was as an offensive coordinator last year, and the shielded optimism surrounding the rise of Tim Lester. Lester took the reins midway through last year but didn’t actually install his own offense, instead sticking with McDonald’s dismal system instead.
However, Lester’s had the entire spring, and into the summer, to get his offense installed. The players have been open about their excitement, talking up how much better suited the personnel is for Lester’s offense than it ever was for McDonald’s. Gone is the bubble screen, and here to stay (for the time being, anyway) is the much talked about hybrid or express back position. What exactly does that mean? Well, we can’t be entirely sure until we see it, but expect Erv Philips to be moved around the field the way you see Percy Harvin or Tavon Austin utilized, as a threat to either take a carry, a jet sweep, or go out deep for a pass. The offense certainly can’t get much worse than it was last year, so hopefully there’ll be a big step forward this season.
3. Will Someone Emerge in the Running Game?
One of the other big keys to the season will be finding a consistent ground game, with pressure mounting for Devante McFarlane and George Morris II. Both of them had disappointing sophomore seasons, but thanks to a lack of depth and experience at the position, they’re it – for now. McFarlane is getting the nod as the “starting” tailback, and as I’ve mentioned before, has shown flashes with his career average of about 6.0-yards-per-carry. But who’s going to step up behind him and help the Orange recover from one of the team’s worst rushing seasons of the past 15 years?
Having Hunt back will help, as the senior QB has better legs than an arm and should be able to get 50 yards per game on the ground and a handful of touchdowns, but obviously the Orange want to see a running back emerge. As mentioned, McFarlane will have the first crack at it, but don’t be surprised to see true freshmen Dontae Strickland and Jordan Fredericks quickly rise up the depth chart.
4. What’s Happening with the Secondary?
Moving over to the other side of the ball, perhaps the biggest question mark is in the secondary. Gone are starting safeties Durell Eskridge and Darius Kelly, leaving virtually zero experience behind them. Antwan Cordy, Rodney Williams, and Chauncey Scissum are all in line to get the most reps at safety but that raises more questions than anything else. They’ve all flashed talent, but having so little game experience it’s hard to know what to expect. It doesn’t help that much hyped freshman Marquise Blair is still being held up by the NCAA and, at this point, probably shouldn’t be expected to make it to campus before January.
Had Blair been ready to go for camp, I firmly believe he’d have earned a starting spot. But now, Syracuse has to move on without him, at least for the time being. Cordy earned raves in the spring but is undersized for the safety position at 5-foot-8, and while Scissum played in all 12 games last year it was in a limited capacity. Cornerback is a little more settled with the returns of Julian Whigham and Wayne Morgan, but they’ll be pushed by Cordell Hudson, Corey Winfield, and Juwan Dowels. Keep an eye on true freshman Christopher Fredrick as a sleeper at the safety position.
5. Is There Enough Depth on the D-Line?
The last big question as we head into the season is whether there are enough bodies for a solid rotation at the defensive line positions, and in particular, defensive tackle. Syracuse had some unexpected attrition on the interior line in the offseason, leaving John Raymon as basically the only experienced tackle coming back, and considering he’s a frequent injury concern that doesn’t add a lot of confidence. However, the coaches have been raving about Kayton Samuels and Chris Slayton, and three true freshmen could all earn playing time.
In fact, you can basically pencil in Steven Clark on the 2-deep, because physically, he’s already set to compete at the Division I level. The 6-foot-3, 315 pounder is ludicrously strong for a true freshman and looks like an SEC tackle. The only thing there is catching up to the speed of the game, which could bring with it some growing pains. Tyler Cross, another true freshman, could also earn some time early, while Anthony Giudice could potentially find his way onto the field out of sheer necessity. Giudice is another physically impressive young tackle, but in any other year would be a certain redshirt candidate. With so few DTs on the roster, however, and with the staff’s desire to keep Ron Thompson on the edge, he may very well be forced into action this season.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll start getting our answers. Which freshmen are ready to step in and play early, and which upperclassmen are ready to take on bigger roles? While last year was a struggle (to say the least), and there are some tough games on the schedule, a bowl game is certainly an achievable goal, as long as the pieces line up. It’ll be interesting to watch and see how the whole thing shakes out leading up to the season opener against Rhode Island.