We’ve hit the “in between” period for college football fans, when spring practice has ended, recruiting season hasn’t really hit full swing, and we’re obviously a little more than three months from kickoff to the 2015 Syracuse University season. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t do a little speculating on what to expect from this year’s iteration of the Orange, right? And what better way than to start asking: what are the biggest question marks facing this team?
Let’s start on the offensive side of the ball…
For better or worse, whether it’s fair or not, everything begins with the quarterback position. Last year was…a struggle, to say the least. Terrel Hunt went down with a broken leg and even before that, he was struggling to get much going offensively. In his first full season as a starter, he threw just one touchdown pass against against four interceptions in his five games. He had six rushing touchdowns, but overall his performance was disappointing following a strong finish in the 2013 campaign.
When Hunt went down, things didn’t get a lot better at quarterback, either. AJ Long, Austin Wilson, and Mitch Kimble struggled to produce much offensively, with Long performing far and away the best out of that trio. The true freshman had glimpses of being a playmaker, but ultimately finished the season with four touchdowns against eight picks, completing just 53.9% of his attempts. Wilson, meanwhile, has the strongest arm on the team but had a 0-to-4 touchdown to interception ratio, and Kimble completed 31.6% of his passes in limited action and has since transferred.
The success of the season really rests on Hunt’s shoulders as we head into 2015. The staff is heading into the season with an eye toward redshirting Long, and Wilson hasn’t shown he’s ready to perform at this level. The Orange brought in two talented young quarterbacks in Eric Dungey and Kenterius Womack, but this is Hunt’s team and as long as he stays healthy, he’s not coming off of that field. Recent workouts with QB guru George Whitfield can only help the senior’s confidence and capability, but it’s on him to put what he’s learned to work and move the Syracuse offense.
What IS the Syracuse Offense?
That’s really the other big question on offense, isn’t it? We don’t really know yet what Tim Lester has in store as he enters his first full season as the team’s offensive coordinator. George McDonald was demoted after five games, and the Orange went just 1-6 over the final seven games with Lester at the helm. Of course, the change in coordinators also coincided with Hunt’s leg injury, so we never actually got to see what Lester could do with his top quarterback. The offensive numbers took a pretty substantial hit around that time, too, but obviously some of that has to do with the level of the opponents.
Over McDonald’s five games, the team averaged 194.8 yards rushing and 214.6 yards passing in games that included Villanova and Central Michigan, compared to 110.9 yards rushing and 162.3 yards passing under Lester against seven ACC opponents, including Florida State and Clemson. And again, Lester was doing it with his second, third, and fourth string QB at various times.
Still, the drop in offense is noteworthy, even taking into account the fact that Lester was changing the offense on the fly and moving away from McDonald’s system. With an entire offseason and spring practice under his belt, and his starting quarterback back behind center, this will be a big year for Lester to prove he was worthy of being promoted to offensive coordinator. There were rumors that at the tail end of 2013, when Hunt started getting on a roll over the last few games, it was Lester, and not McDonald calling the plays. Let’s hope that was the case, and we can expect to see the kind of offensive production we saw that year against Boston College and Minnesota.
Offensive Line Play
The game is generally won or lost in the trenches, and there will be a lot riding on this year’s offensive line. The unit took a pretty significant step back from 2013 to 2014, and much of that surely had to do with the loss of Macky MacPherson. Kind of amazing when you think about it, considered when he was initially recruited many people thought it was nepotism at its finest, and instead he turned into the heart and soul of the offense and an indispensable player on the field. Add the fact that the team lost its best player from 2014, Sean Hickey, and there are certainly questions surrounding this unit in 2015.
The most talented returning player on the line is Rob Trudo, who has a chance to play on Sundays eventually. After Trudo, however, things begin getting a little bit murky. The post-spring depth chart has Trudo penciled in as the starter at center, with Ivan Foy and Nick Robinson on the left side and Aaron Roberts and Omari Palmer on Trudo’s right. Two of the more intriguing backups are Michael Lasker at left tackle and Jamar McGloster at left tackle.
The player to watch on this unit, after Trudo, might be Aaron Roberts. Roberts is a favorite of Scott Shafer’s, and as Syracuse.com reported he was the clear breakout player over the course of spring practice on the offensive line. There are several talented freshmen joining the mix, and some of them could find early playing time. There’s been a lot of buzz about Evan Adams, for example, and Sam Clausman is another name to keep an eye on, but barring some serious setbacks with current members of the 2-deep I wouldn’t expect many – if any – true freshmen to see the field much, if at all, this season.
Running back is going to be interesting as we head into the fall, with Devante McFarlane 1A and George Morris 1B on the depth chart. McFarlane, based on past production (he’s averaged better than 6.0 yards-per-carry through his first two seasons) should get the nod out of the gate, but both he and Morris will be pushed by the incoming freshmen: Dontae Strickland, Jordan Fredericks, and Tyrone Perkins … One of the things that jumped out to a lot of people at the spring game was a number of drops by wide receivers, but perhaps surprisingly I’m not overly worried about the receiver position at this point. That’s probably because we have a couple of the most talented receivers we’ve had in years heading into 2015, most notably Steve Ishmael – who seems destined for stardom – and Erv Philips, who moved to the slot after playing running back as a true freshman last year. Philips has the kind of big play ability to be a true game breaker for the Orange. And I haven’t even mentioned guys like Alvin Cornelius, an excellent blocker who I feel is poised for a breakthrough season, or Brisly Estime, or Ashton Broyld, let alone Ben Lewis, Jamal Custis and Adly Enoicy … Tight end isn’t particularly deep, but with Custis and Enoicy available to line up at that position as well as at receiver, along with Josh Parris and Trey Dunkelberger, from a pass catching standpoint the position looks as well stocked as it has been in years.