Syracuse University football will be getting back on the gridiron starting February 25 as the Orange open up spring practice, and after finishing 3-9 last season there are a lot of questions surrounding the team. Of course, there are certain areas we’re going to be watching a lot more closely than others. Is spring football going to provide definitive answers? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be keeping a close eye on these five aspects of the Orange football team as it prepares for 2015.
Can Terrel Hunt be the answer at quarterback?
It’s not much of a secret that quarterback was a massive trouble spot for Syracuse last season. Collectively, Terrel Hunt, AJ Long, Austin Wilson, and Mitch Kimble threw for 2,208 yards with just five touchdowns against 17 interceptions. Hunt, a player so many had high expectations for after closing the 2013 season on a hot streak, struggled mightily out of the gate. In his five appearances, he completed 57.2% of his passes for 983 yards with just one touchdown against four picks.
Kimble is gone, and while Long and Wilson got valuable game experience, they had a lot more downs than ups in their time on the field. Wilson didn’t throw a single touchdown pass, but threw four picks in five appearances. Long fared a little better, tossing four touchdowns against eight interceptions to go along with 935 yards in six games. Still, that’s not exactly encouraging stuff. Hunt is back from a broken leg, and the question remains: can he be the quarterback to lead the Orange to success in 2015?
As a redshirt sophomore, Hunt threw for 1,638 yards with 10 touchdowns and eight picks. He also, obviously, added a tremendous dynamic to the offense with his ability to run the football. However, even those passing numbers are a bit skewed. After throwing seven touchdowns and no picks in early games against Wagner and Tulane, Hunt didn’t throw a single touchdown in the month of October, and in fact had a 0-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio following the Tulane game up until a November 23 loss at Pittsburgh. Now, Hunt did close 2013 with two strong games, but based on the start he had in 2014, were those two high points in 2013 an anomaly, or a sign of the potential to come?
Who will emerge as the primary running back?
Prince-Tyson Gulley is gone, after the under appreciated running back ran for 614 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season. Gone, too, is Adonis Ameen-Moore, and last year’s most exciting young runner, Erv Philips, has been switched to the slot position. That puts most of the pressure to carry the load on Devante McFarlane and George Morris II, two talented players who have yet to live up to expectations.
McFarlane looks like the more exciting back right now, having averaged 6.0 yards per carry last season, but he gained just 169 yards from scrimmage in eight games. Morris, on the other hand, came to Syracuse with high expectations that were only bolstered when the coaching staff heaped praise on him during his first fall camp. Unfortunately, so far he has yet to show much of that promise on the field. Last season he averaged a meager 2.9 yards per carry, just barely cracking 100 yards for the entire season.
Right now there are two big position battles that probably won’t be resolved until fall camp, and running back is one of them. There’s ample opportunity for players like Jordan Fredericks, Tyrone Perkins, and Dontae Strickland to come in over the summer and earn carries as true freshmen, while it’s getting close to a “now or never” time for McFarlane and Morris. The juniors have to make an impact this spring, now that they are the de facto 1A and 1B in the running back rotation, or else they could get leapfrogged in the pecking order when the talented freshmen get to campus.
What’s happening in the defensive secondary?
I mentioned that running back is one position where true freshmen will have a chance to earn immediate playing time, and the secondary is the other. With Durrell Eskridge and Darius Kelly gone, there’s not a lot left in the cupboard. Marquise Blair, for instance, should be a frontrunner to earn a spot on the 2-deep when he arrives on campus.
Syracuse returns players such as Julian Whigham and Wayne Morgan, but after those two there’s a sharp dropoff in on field experience. Chauncey Scissum is a player to watch, as a safety prospect that had Scott Shafer excited when he was coming out of high school. Now a redshirt sophomore, the door is wide open for Scissum to earn significant playing time. Corey Winfield, Antwan Cordy, and Cordell Hudson are other players who should factor into the defensive back rotation at cornerback.
This is one of the thinnest positions on the team in terms of experience, and will be one of the most important battles to focus on throughout spring ball.
Which young linebackers will step up?
There’s plenty of young talent and depth at linebacker, though it’s going to be a tall order to replace Cameron Lynch and Dyshawn Davis. Now the question is, who will step up, and will they be able to thrive in an increased role? Marqez Hodge returns after starting last season at middle linebacker, though it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him moved to the outside while Zaire Franklin, a true sophomore who saw playing time last season, takes over in the middle.
One of the most exciting linebacker prospects is Jonathan Thomas, who played limited snaps last year as a true freshman and has the athleticism to become an impact player on the outside. He’s already physically ready to compete, as a player who looks like he was carved from stone. Colton Moskal and Parris Bennett are other players who should see increased roles, and it’ll be interesting to see which players work their way onto the 2-deep.
This is another position where the newcomers could earn playing time, with a guy like Shy Cullen physically ready to step in at one of the OLB positions, and if JUCO target Ted Taylor commits, he’ll immediately be a favorite to get playing time on the outside with his 4.5 speed.
What’s Tim Lester’s offense going to look like?
Maybe the most important question of the year is what offensive coordinator Tim Lester’s offense will actually look like. Sure, he took over the playcalling duties in the middle of the season last year, but we weren’t seeing his offense, and we certainly weren’t seeing it at its peak, considering the rash of injuries. Now, there were some unsubstantiated rumors that when Hunt had those two outstanding games to end 2013, it was actually Lester calling the plays. If that’s true, it does bode well for what he could do with a guy like Hunt, especially now that he’s got a big (both in terms of depth and actual size) group of receivers and tight ends to throw to.
Steve Ishmael looks like the best Syracuse receiver since Mike Williams, and it’s important to note that he was barely a part of the game plan in the five games with Hunt under center. In fact, only six of his 27 catches came on throws from Hunt, and his role increased as the year progressed. It’ll be a big help to Hunt to have such a talented guy to throw to, now that Ishmael is the clear cut No. 1 receiver on the roster.
It’ll also be interesting to see how Lester uses his tight ends and slots, with the word coming that we’ll see a lot more two TE sets, meaning guys like Jamal Custis, Adly Enoicy, and newcomer Trey Dunkelberger should be focal points of the new offense. It’ll also be interesting to see the way Lester utilizes Philips and Brisly Estime, as well as Ashton Broyld – a guy whose athleticism no one has really been able to figure out how to utilize fully in his time at Syracuse.
Obviously, this isn’t a definitive list. When you’re coming off a 3-9 season, there are going to be a lot more questions than there are answers. Hopefully by the time the spring game rolls around on April 4, that’ll be the other way around.