We’re under 100 days until football season kicks off with the season opener against Colgate, and it’s obviously a big year of change for Syracuse with new head coach Dino Babers. New coaches mean new systems, and when the playing field gets leveled even a little bit, it means opportunities for younger players to catch up to their older counterparts.
That said, this spring the upperclassmen got a big head start on learning the Babers offense as well as defensive coordinator Brian Ward’s Tampa 2 defense, so expecting a huge amount of true freshmen to step in and contribute immediately may not be realistic. That said, plenty of true freshmen earned early playing time a year ago, and you can bet on a solid number following suit this year as well.
With that in mind, who are the likeliest candidates to get on the field early on for the Syracuse football team?
This one should be pretty obvious, considering the dynamic athlete arrived on campus in January and already turned plenty of heads in the spring. With his elite speed and moves in the open field, there’s simply no way that Neal doesn’t play a fairly significant role in the offense this year. Ever since watching his highlights for the first time, I’ve been comparing him to Erv Philips (seriously, their HUDL films are eerily similar). If you recall Erv’s role as a true freshman a couple years ago, I’d expect Moe to make an impact on par with what Philips was able to do in his first year…if not more.
Another guy who arrived early and has already started making some big strides through spring practice, the big, physical defensive end has the good fortune for him (and not-so-good fortune for Syracuse) to be at a position of extreme need for the Orange. Several – if not all – of the true freshmen defensive ends will play this year, but Ruff has the leg up and is already on the depth chart. Because, let’s be honest, he kind of has to be at this point. I’d wager that when the team takes the field against Colgate, the starting DEs will be Gabe Sherrod and Jake Pickard, but Ruff will likely be the third man in the rotation.
The most recent addition to the Syracuse recruiting class of 2016 is also a player who has a chance to crack the 2-deep almost as soon as he walks onto campus. The 6-foot-2, 175 pound Pierre is athletic and versatile enough to play either corner or safety, and is part of a trend with this year’s class of bring in tall, rangy athletes for the secondary. Pierre is one of the most highly regarded players in this year’s recruiting class for Syracuse, and finding a spot somewhere in the secondary seems like it’s bound to happen for the Florida native who, much to Syracuse’s delight, basically fell into the lap of the Orange.
I already mentioned the fact that there’s a good chance all of the freshman defensive ends will be called upon this fall, but next to Ruff, the player who – on paper, at least – appears to be a potential difference maker early in his career is Jaquwan Nelson. That’s not to say that players like Kendall Coleman and Josh Black won’t also emerge, as both have good size and ability, but Nelson is the player who wound up being arguably the top prospect on the board for Babers and his staff at the end of the recruiting cycle. There’s a reason the Orange had to fight so hard to keep Georgia at bay for his services, after all.
This is my dark horse pick, and if things are going well this season at the quarterback position, then hopefully we won’t see much of Rex this fall. But given Eric Dungey’s injury history – and the injury history at Syracuse for quarterbacks in general over the past couple seasons – the second string signal caller is essential. I’ve felt for awhile that, sooner or later, Culpepper will overtake his competition for the QB2 spot on the depth chart. Like Neal and Ruff, he’s been on campus since January and has competed in spring ball. Austin Wilson still hasn’t managed to separate himself despite being the longest tenured QB on the roster, and while Zack Mahoney has a chance to be a team captain sooner than later and possesses a hell of a lot of moxie, he doesn’t have a lot of arm talent. Despite Mahoney being the number two guy right now, I’m betting Rex will take that job before long.
Another dark horse pick for early playing time is the speedster from California. Yes, he’s very small at 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, but he’s an electric athlete and, while there may not be a big role in the actual offense just yet, don’t be the least bit surprised if we see Riley back returning kicks when the team takes the field against Colgate. He’s blazing fast, has elite lateral quickness, and could be a potential home run threat every time he goes back to take a punt or kickoff. Plus, if he’s as good returning kicks as I think he’ll be, it takes some of that pressure off of Brisly Estime, and would enable him to focus on becoming a difference maker in the slot.
One of the Young Offensive Linemen
To be honest, it’s always tough to predict which offensive lineman is going to make an early impact. For the regular fans like you and me, it’s harder to really judge an offensive lineman’s ability to transition to the college game from watching HUDL highlights than, say, a running back or linebacker. That said, I would anticipate at least one of this year’s incoming OL (Liam O’Sullivan, Michael Clark, Airon Servais, Sam Heckel) to see the field this year, much like Cody Conway did last season.
Now, who will it be? My guess is that it won’t be O’Sullivan, who could very well wind up being the most talented OL in the class but is still far too slim and needs to spend a year bulking up while redshirting. Servais was the very first player the new staff got to commit, and they offered him almost immediately – a sure sign that they love his ability. All four players have a chance to be very good for the Orange, but if I had to predict right now which one gets on the field first, I’m going to go with either Heckel or Servais. And now that I’ve said that, it’ll probably be Michael Clark.
Frankly, as long as they can all keep rushers away from Eric Dungey, well then frankly I don’t care which player gets on the field first.
Obviously, this is all just wild speculation at this point. Some of the names are obvious, like Neal and Ruff. And there’ll almost certainly be a name I haven’t mentioned yet – maybe Devon Clarke, or McKinley Williams, or Andrew Armstrong, or Tim Walton, or Evan Foster – who earns his way onto the gridiron in fall camp. At the end of the day, I’d wager that we’ll see double digits burn their redshirts this season. These are simply my picks for the likeliest candidates to do so.