In the latest edition of a multi-part series, editorial staff of The Juice Online discuss various topics on Syracuse football. Today’s topic: What are your initial impressions of Syracuse through two games?
Wesley Cheng: Jim, with Syracuse’s 42-29 loss to USC on Saturday, the Orange has started the season 0-2. Still, there seems to be some optimism among Orange fans. Have you seen an improvement since the 2011 season?
Jim Stechschulte: Yes. I’ve seen massive, massive improvement. Record says 0-2, but if you’ve seen the games, you can tell that they don’t quit, they play hard, and they also play with an edge. They look like a BCS quality team for the first time in a long time from size and speed perspectives. Prince-Tyson Gulley and Marcus Sales being back add a whole different dimension of playmaking and Jarrod West is improved. Once Justin Pugh returns, SU can return Sean Hickey to right tackle. That will move Lou Alexander, the weakest link, out of the lineup (and I say this while acknowledging the line has looked very, very good thus far – only two sacks allowed to USC). They’ve also done this without Lemon in one game and not 100 percent in the other.
WC: Jim, I couldn’t agree more. Offensively, the Orange has looked so much better than last year when they finished 84th in the NCAA in points, 95th in rushing and and 65th in passing. Two other guys that you didn’t mention are Jeremiah Kobena, who had a pair of touchdowns against Northwestern, and Beckett Wales, who already has nine receptions so far this season. When Ryan Nassib drops back, he has a lot of options, and now that he’s a third year starter, he’s got the patience to look through his progressions and find the right man. How about your thoughts on the defense?
JS: The defense looks like a Scott Shafer defense—ultra-aggressive. They’ll give up some stuff due to lack of size especially against power running teams (like all those 20-yard dashes USC got inside, as well as misdirection plays due to overpursuit), but they’re willing to live with that to try to create plays. You saw in the USC game they made a lot of tackles behind the line and forced some turnovers. Marquis Spruill looks a lot more comfortable at OLB, Dyshawn Davis is a playmaker on the other side, Jay Bromley is turning into a stud DT and Brandon Reddish is joining Shamarko Thomas as DBs who could end up as All Big East selections.
WC: Without actually watching the games, on paper, the defense has struggled. Giving up 42 points in each of the games doesn’t bode well. But if you’ve seen the game, the defense has been very, very solid. Against Northwestern, three of those touchdowns were caused when the defense was on the sideline (the Sales’ tip interception, the Jerome Smith fumble for a touchdown, and then Venric Mark’s punt return for a touchdown). Against USC, Robert Woods had a tremendous punt return and then the Trojans capitalized on a failed onside kick in the fourth quarter when USC ran away with the game. That’s more of an knock on the special teams unit than anything. Speaking of which, what are your thoughts on special teams, and do you have any other concerns about this team?
JS: The punting game is just terrible. It bothers me that Steve Rene is still the preferred option as a returner and the coverage and kicks has been very bad so far. Nassib’s inconsistency is still concerning and I wonder how much opposing defensive schemes have contributed to his ability to bring the team back from deficits (prevent/soft zones aimed at not getting beat deep let him complete all sorts of short stuff). Defense tends to get tired, which is in some way a function of being undersized. Other than that, there is not that really bothers me.
WC: Those are all fair concerns, but I think given all of that, the Big East is wide open, and judging from the first two games, it seems like Syracuse could finish the season strong. I still feel confident that this team can win six games and qualify for a bowl game.
JS: I was discussing with some friends after Saturday’s game and I believe SU can win 9 games, even with the 0-2 start (that’s can, not will). Missouri is the most likely game they lose, but Louisville is homecoming weekend, so there will likely be an inflated and rowdy crowd at the Dome. That matchup could end up being good enough at that time that ESPN doesn’t make it a noon game, which could mean even students attend. No one else on the schedule is good enough to say “that’s a loss” with what I’ve seen so far.