Believe it or not, by the end of this week, Syracuse football will be back. Fall camp kicks off this coming weekend, and we’ll be one step closer to seeing just how quickly Dino Babers and his staff are able to implement their systems and turn the Orange back into a winning program. With that in mind, let’s take a look at five of the biggest storylines.
Obviously, the biggest questions surround how quickly the players take to the Dino Babers offense, and Brian Ward’s Tampa 2 defense. That much is obvious. So instead of focusing too much on those two, broader questions, let’s look at a few more specific areas to watch.
1. Who Will Emerge at Defensive End
This is one of the most pressing needs for Syracuse heading into the 2016 season. Literally no one on the current roster played a snap at defensive end at the college level on 2015, making the position by far the most inexperienced group for the Orange.
Now, that’s not to say there isn’t talent there. De’Jon Wilson has some experience from his time at Colorado, and Jake Pickard was a highly sought after recruit coming out of high school. This is the kid who idolized JJ Watt and Chandler Jones and picked Syracuse over Wisconsin and Michigan, after all.
But even so, Wilson sat out the 2015 season and Pickard took a redshirt season to get bigger and stronger. I talked a little bit about how the true freshmen DEs will need to step up early, and that remains one of the biggest keys to the successful implementation of Brian Ward’s Tampa 2 defense. It’s a defense that relies heavily on the front four being able to create pressure, so to a large degree, its success will be dictated by who is able to step up at defensive end.
2. How Quickly Will the O-Line Take Shape
The offensive line is replacing several starters, but unlike the defensive end position, there is some depth and experience there. Jason Emerich and Omari Palmer return to anchor the line, but it’s the other three positions that will really determine how successful the offense can be, since the war on the gridiron is truly won in the trenches.
The good news is that, from what I understand, the coaching staff is pretty pleased with the young offensive linemen on the roster. Aaron Roberts, in particular, has earned an awful lot of praise behind the scenes and could emerge as a starter (and a stalwart) this season. The same was said last year, of course, but then Roberts was fairly inexplicably buried on the depth chart.
Bigger question marks are at the tackles. Jamar McGloster and Michael Lasker came out of the spring as the projected starters, but from what I’ve been told, Evan Adams and Cody Conway are two of the most impressive linemen on the team, regardless of seniority. There are questions surrounding the offensive line, but clearly it’s not a position lacking in depth or talent. The only question is really how fast this group can be solidified.
3. Can the Secondary Take a Big Step Forward
It’s no secret that the defensive secondary has been a rough spot for Syracuse for a good long while. I’m not just picking on the guys on this year’s team, or last year’s team, either. Cornerback, in particular, has always been next to impossible for Syracuse to adequately recruit. Only Kevin Abrams and Will Allen have been drafted to the NFL from the cornerback position in the history of the program, unless I’m completely blanking on someone.
Safety has obviously been a bit of a different story. Markus Paul, Donovin Darius, Tebucky Jones, Anthony Smith, Tanard Jackson, Shamarko Thomas; these are guys who have all been drafted and enjoyed solid NFL careers. In some cases, better than solid. But the point remains: the secondary has always been a trouble spot for the Orange over the years.
Syracuse has some interesting pieces in the defensive backfield this season. Corey Winfield, Juwan Dowels, and Cordell Hudson all showed flashes of being solid cornerbacks last season. Antwan Cordy punches well above his weight class at safety, and guys like Rodney Williams, Chauncey Scissum, and Kielan Whitner have a chance to emerge as part of a pretty good (and deep) safety group, as well. But Syracuse got embarrassed in the secondary more than a few times last season. How much of a step up can they take this year?
4. What’s the Pecking Order at Running Back
Just like I talked about Syracuse’s defensive end position last week, I also went in depth on the running back position. And believe it or not, despite the Babers offense having a reputation for only airing it out, it’s also extremely kind to running backs.
Yes, the wide receivers – like Steve Ishmael, Erv Philips, and Brisly Estime – are going to be the primary beneficiaries of the high octane, wide open offense. But someone’s got to run the ball, too. Coming out of the spring, Dontae Strickland looked like the best bet to get the first team snaps. The staff likes Jordan Fredericks, but with last year’s leading rusher, it’s more a matter of getting (and staying) in shape.
The wildcards are true freshman Moe Neal, as well as senior George Morris. Neal’s arguably the most dynamic athlete on the offensive side of the ball, while Morris is a fifth year guy who hasn’t quite lived up to expectations but has still proven to be an effective runner at times over his career. So who will come out on top as this quartet competes for carries?
5. Can Eric Dungey Make “The Leap”
There are questions at a lot of positions on this team. The only real question at quarterback, however, is whether or not Eric Dungey can remain healthy. Obviously, there are some concerns about depth at the position. Zack Mahoney has a ton of moxie and seems destined to become a team captain, but he’s still a walk-on with very apparent limitations when it comes to throwing the ball. Rex Culpepper has great size and pedigree but is coming off an ACL injury.
So the question, really, is just how quickly Eric Dungey can make “The Leap” and become what we all think he can become. It’s not much of a secret, if you’ve been reading this site for awhile, that I’m a huge fan of Dungey. I’ve been a big fan of his abilities since he was still in high school, and I’m proud to be one of the first people to predict his success on the field at Syracuse (albeit a whole lot quicker than I anticipated).
Eric Dungey clearly has the athletic talent and the smarts to be a successful QB. The real issue is whether he can make the kind of progress, refining the little things, and learning how to protect himself, to become The Man for the Orange. Dungey could be the face of the program for the next few years. Starting this weekend, we’ll hopefully begin getting a few glimpses of just how ready he is to take up that mantle.