A promising start to the 2011 campaign was derailed when the Syracuse football team dropped their last five contests. Coming off a rousing Friday night upset over a nationally-ranked West Virginia team, head coach Doug Marrone’s squad could not get over the hump, failing to win a single game that would have clinched bowl eligibility for a second straight season. Instead, the Orange backslid to a 5-7 mark, which was accompanied by a last place finish in the Big East.
That frustrating end capped a season marked with “what could have beens”. SU dropped an early season game to Rutgers in overtime when they committed five turnovers and had two kicks blocked. The Orange was gifted five Connecticut turnovers, but could not turn them into points in a seven-point loss to the Huskies. Syracuse closed the season by falling behind by ten points in the opening 2:30 at Pittsburgh and could never draw even. Of course, the Orange needed late scores to pull out early season victories over Toledo and Tulane to even out the scales.
The SU offense was the primary culprit last season, finishing 90th in the nation in yards per game and 84th in points per game. While there were some strong individual performances on that side of the ball, the total effort was lacking more often than not. Of course, there was not a top-notch effort to match from the inexperienced defense, as the team ranked 79th in points allowed and 68th in yards allowed. To put it simply, both sides of the ball need to show significant improvement.
With SU looking at their final season in the Big East and a move to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013, the Orange faces a tough road. Syracuse is slated for one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, featuring opponents from “Big Six” conferences in four of their five non-Big East games. The good news is some strong performers return, including quarterback Ryan Nassib, wide receiver Alec Lemon, offensive tackle Justin Pugh, linebackers Marquis Spruill and Dan Vaughan, and safety Shamarko Thomas. Also, the team is finally over 80 scholarship players for the first time since Doug Marrone took over the program. That added depth should help the team survive injuries, as well as avoid a trend of fading down the stretch, which has been a problem in each of Marrone’s three seasons at the helm.
With two full seasons as the starter under his belt, quarterback Ryan Nassib is poised to climb into some prestigious spots in the Syracuse record book. He is in the top five in eight different categories in the Orange annals and is coming off a season in which he set school records for passing yards and completions, as well as tying the mark in touchdown passes. Charley Loeb will back him up.
Running back is a position marked by inexperience and as many as five different backs, including a pair of freshmen, could get action. Jerome Smith is the most “experienced” of the group, having carried 37times last season. Prince-Tyson Gulley provides a speed option and Adonis Ameen-Moore dropped over 25 pounds from his freshman season, but is still a pile-moving bowling ball. Clay Cleveland will open the season as the starting fullback.
The wide receiver group should be one of the strengths of the team, at least as far as the starters are concerned. Alec Lemon tied a school mark with 68 catches last season while playing through a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. Last year’s All-Big East Second Team member could end his career as the all-time leading receiver in SU history. Marcus Sales missed last season due to off-field issues, but returns with the big-play promise he showed in the 2010Pinstripe Bowl when he caught five passes for 172 yards and three scores. Burner Jeremiah Kobena and big target Jarrod West look to play strong supporting roles in the rotation. One loss at wide receiver was suffered when the NCAA ruled that Arkansas transfer Quinta Funderburke, a four-star recruit out of Virginia who played one season with the Razorbacks, has to sit out this season. While Nick Provo graduated from school, David Stevens, Beckett Wales, and heralded freshman Ron Thompson should pick up the slack at tight end. Stevens was the top receiver of that group in 2011, snaring 19 passes for the Orange, but Wales is slotted to start. Thompson may not be able to play at the outset of the season due to an injury. Freshman Ashton Broyld will see time on offense in varying places as the coaching staff tries to put him in position to make big plays with his athleticism. Broyld played quarterback in high school, so the return of a Wildcat package to get Broyld a chance to make plays is not out of the realm of possibility.
Three players return to the starting offensive line for SU, but the best of the group may have the start of his season held up. Justin Pugh, an all-conference performer last year at left tackle, is rehabbing a shoulder injury and may miss a month of the season. That said, he will be getting his injured shoulder looked at during the week prior to the season and may be able to protect Nassib’s blind side in the season opener. Zack Chibane is back at left guard and center Macky MacPherson will start his second straight season in the middle of the line. Should Pugh not be able to start the opener, Sean Hickey will replace him. If Pugh is available, Hickey has the inside track on the right tackle spot in front of Lou Alexander. Right guard will be manned by sophomore Ivan Foy.
RETURNING OFFENSIVE STARTERS (5): G Zach Chibane, WR Alec Lemon, C Macky MacPherson, QB Ryan Nassib, OT Justin Pugh
LEADING RETURNING RUSHER: Jerome Smith – 37 carries for 139 yards and one touchdown
LEADING RETURNING PASSER: Ryan Nassib – completed 259-of-415 passes for 2685 yards, 22 touchdowns, and nine interceptions
LEADING RETURNING RECEIVER: Alec Lemon – 68 receptions for 834 yards and six touchdowns
The defense featured a lot of inexperienced players last year, but the upside of that is many of those young players have grown from being tested on the field last year. The defensive line features a couple players who were new to action for SU last year, but are ready for prime time roles this season. Junior college transfer defensive tackle Deon Goggins had 7.5 tackles for loss last season in his first season at SU and defensive tackle Jay Bromley had 5.5 stops behind the line in his first true taste of game play as a sophomore. Goggins can also play defensive end in run defense looks. They head up a deeper rotation which features senior Brandon Sharpe and speed rushing junior college transfer Markus Pierce-Brewster as starters at defensive end and two absolute loads at defensive tackle in Eric Crume and another junior college transfer in Zian Jones. Another two wild cards in the picture are Iowa transfer John Raymon, who is waiting to hear from the NCAA regarding his eligibility this season, and Davon Walls. Both play defensive tackle and weigh on at over 310 pounds.
The linebacker corps is also deep and features a handful of playmakers. Dan Vaughan is the leading returning tackler for Syracuse, but is slated to be a reserve at middle linebacker at the outset of the season. Sriki Diabate is listed to start in front of Vaughan. Undersized in the middle at 5’10” and 220 pounds, Diabate will need the bigger defensive tackles to keep linemen off him. He will be flanked by Marquis Spruill, who has started 24 games in his two seasons on campus and moves back outside where he played as a freshman, and playmaking sophomore Dyshawn Davis. The two outside linebackers combined for 19 tackles for loss last season, including seven quarterback sacks. Cameron Lynch, who tallied 35 stops as a true freshman, should be in the mix, as well as former walk-on Dom Anene, who was awarded a scholarship for his senior season.
The secondary features six players who logged significant time last year and will be led by senior strong safety Shamarko Thomas. Thomas is simply a load at strong safety, an excellent athlete who tends toward the big hit. He will be joined at free safety by Jeremi Wilkes, who logged a pair of pass breakups and an interception last season. Durell Eskridge and Ritchy Desir form the backup safety tandem. Ri’Shard Anderson and Keon Lyn were the starters at cornerback last season and both return this year. However, they will combine to fill one cornerback and the nickel back roles while sophomore Brandon Reddish will start at the other cornerback spot. The fourth cornerback this season will be one of a pair of freshmen – top recruit Wayne Morgan or Julian Whigham.
RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS (8): CB Ri’Shard Anderson, DTJay Bromley, LB Dyshawn Davis, DE Deon Goggins, CB Keon Lyn, LB Marquis Spruill, SS Shamarko Thomas, LB Dan Vaughan
LEADING RETURNERS IN TACKLES: Dan Vaughan – 72 tackles, Shamarko Thomas – 67tackles; Marquis Spruill – 62 tackles
LEADING RETURNERS IN SACKS: Dyshawn Davis – four, Marquis Spruill – three
LEADING RETURNERS IN INTERCEPTIONS: Jeremy Wilkes – one
SPECIAL TEAMS OUTLOOK
Not only are all the players who held significant roles on the special teams units back this season, they are augmented by an addition. Kicker Ross Krautman, who has made 33-of-38 field goal attempts in two seasons, will be able to focus on placekicking this season with the addition of freshman Ryan Norton. Norton has a stronger leg and will take over kickoff duties for the Orange. Jonathan Fisher is back as the punter after averaging 39.3 yards per kick last season.
Jeremiah Kobena returns as the primary kickoff return man for the Orange after leading the team with 45 returns for a 22.8-yard average. Steve Rene, who was injured during preseason practice, but is expected to be back for the opener, is the leading punt return option after returning ten kicks last season. Prince-Tyson Gulley will likely be available to help out at both return options.
SCHEDULE (all times Eastern, time and TV coverage subject to change):
- 09.01.12 12:00pm Northwestern ESPN2
- 09.08.12 3:30pm Southern California ABC
- 09.15.12 4:00pm Stony Brook
- 09.22.12 8:00pm at Minnesota Big Ten Network
- 10.05.12 7:00pm Pittsburgh ESPN
- 10.13.12 TBA at Rutgers
- 10.19.12 8:00pm Connecticut ESPN
- 10.27.12 TBA at South Florida
- 11.03.12 TBA at Cincinnati
- 11.10.12 TBA Louisville
- 11.17.12 TBA at Missouri
- 11.23.12 TBA at Temple ABC/ESPN/ESPN2
Simply put, the non-conference schedule is a bear. Aside from Stony Brook, the other four teams call the Pac-12, SEC, and Big Ten home. Oh, and USC is among the top-ranked teams in the country. The two Big Ten foes – Northwestern and Minnesota – hold the key to the Orange season. Northwestern eked into a bowl game last year, but needs to replace their quarterback. A victory over them could propel SU to a strong start. While a victory over Southern California in the new Meadowlands is probably too steep a request, the Orange should defeat Stony Brook, a lower-division school. The game against Minnesota, who is coming off a 3-9 season, could be another victory for the Orange and send them into conference play at 3-1. Missouri comes late in the season and, while they should outclass SU, they could also be roughed up from their inaugural season of the meat grinder called the SEC schedule.
After their last place Big East finish in 2011, not much is thought of the Orange this year, as they ended the media poll 7th of eight teams, in front of only Temple, who makes their return to the conference. The good news is that the Big East does not feature a wide spread of talent from top to bottom, causing things to often turn out far from what is expected at the beginning of the season. Louisville was the only team in the conference to place in either of the preseason national polls, eking into the Associated Press poll at #25. To put it simply, while not much is expected of SU, the Big East is a relatively easy conference in which to pull off a surprise.
The swansong of Syracuse in the Big East will not be determined by their play in the conference. The team’s performance in the non-conference schedule will have more to say than anything else about if the team returns to bowl eligibility. If they can sweep the two Big Ten foes, they will need to only be middle of the pack in conference to get to 6-6.
While the team still lacks elite talent, it should be better across the roster than it has been in a long time. There are six players who have started a minimum of 24 games, including Nassib, who could position himself for the NFL draft with a strong performance. There are proven performers sprinkled along both lines, at the receiver spot, and in the back seven on defense. Syracuse could surprise some people, but with the tougher schedule, even matching last season’s 5-7 mark could actually bathe mark of significant improvement. The team should be better overall, though, through a combination of experience and depth that has been lacking, so 6-6 and a return to a bowl game is a reasonable goal.