What can we expect from Tim Lester’s offense at Syracuse?

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Syracuse’s offense struggled last season

Beyond the equipment, size of the playing field, and a few other things, not much is the same between the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision and NCAA Division III football. While the former is loaded up with elite athletes and generating millions and millions of dollars, the latter is comprised of young men looking to extend their football career just a little bit longer and young coaches trying to claw their way up the ladder of their profession.

Syracuse added one of those young coaches from Division III three years ago when Scott Shafer, the newly-minted head coach, tabbed Tim Lester as his quarterbacks coach. Shafer called upon on his relationship with Lester from 2005-2006, when they both were on Western Michigan’s coaching staff as defensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, respectively.

In the six years between sharing an employer with Shafer, Lester dropped down to Division III for a year as a defensive coordinator before being named the head coach and offensive coordinator at Elmhurst College, where he spent five seasons amassing a 33-19 record and bringing the Bluejays to the NCAA Playoffs for the first time in the school’s history.

While at Elmhurst, Lester ran his own offense. With last year’s midseason promotion to offensive coordinator finally followed by an offseason to install that offense for Syracuse, this coming season will show what his offense will do for the Orange.

For a sneak peek, a look back at Lester’s five seasons at Elmhurst could tell us what to expect.

Lester’s offenses at Elmhurst were not overly prolific, only once averaging over 30 points per game after taking out points for special teams and defensive scores. Like their FBS counterparts, top offenses in Division III roll up 40 or 50 points on a weekly basis, so Lester was not running a wide-open, explosive attack.

Quarterbacks were expected to do some running in Lester’s offense, but not in a true dual-threat manner. In five seasons of steering the Bluejays, quarterbacks carried the ball a total of 209 times for an average of just over four rushes per game. It seems like just enough running by the quarterback to put a seed of doubt in the minds of defenders that he had to be accounted for.

Further evidence of Lester’s offense having a dash of quarterback running is SU quarterback recruit Rex Culpepper’s statement that Lester’s offense is similar to his high school scheme, which features zone-read packages combined with downfield passing. Lester himself has called it “multiple”, alluding to it having spread elements, varying
personnel packages, and that it can be modified to fit various offensive personnel.

Looking at play-by-play of Elmhurst’s games suggests Lester runs an offense with a traditional mindset: mixing run and pass plays until the game situation dictates otherwise, whether having a lead and running to kill the clock or abandoning the run while trailing late in the game. Not much more can truly be gleaned, as the play-by-play is a simple log, summarizing plays as “Cheng pass complete to Bierman for gain of 32 yards” with no description if it was a screen pass turned into a big gain or a deep pass.

(As a fun side note, Lester’s playing days as a quarterback who aired the ball out on the field may have contributed to a game in which he called 70 passes. Down 35-7 in the middle of the third quarter, Elmhurst had three fourth quarter possessions with a run:pass ratio of 1:38. No draw plays to keep the defense honest here!)

» Related: Previewing SU’s ACC opener against Wake Forest

Perhaps the biggest trend noticeable under Lester at Elmhurst was his reliance on his best skill position players. This happens a lot at lower divisions of college football when a running back or wide receiver who is a cut above the general talent level is exploited for great gains – literally.

In 2008, his first season as a head coach, Lester had a senior quarterback named Chris Kudyba, who set school records for season and career passing yards, and a senior wide receiver named Matt D’Angelo, who set or tied nine school records. Lest you think either of these players were athletic freaks who should have been on television every Saturday, Elmhurst listed Kudyba at 6’1” and 195 pounds, while D’Angelo was 5’10” and 170 pounds.

In any case, with a senior quarterback and senior wide receiver, Lester called almost 55 percent pass plays. Kudyba had 209 completions, 67 going to D’Angelo (the next best on the team was 36), and tossed 25 touchdown passes with D’Angelo snaring 13 of them. Even Lester’s first game hinted at his desire to exploit a matchup in his favor as Kudyba and D’Angelo hooked up for five touchdown passes, the first three in the second quarter alone.

When the 2009 season rolled around, Lester had to plan an offense without those two stars. He ended up playing two different quarterbacks, switching starters midway through the season, having three different running backs get at least 55 carries, and a half dozen players catch at least 15 passes with a top receiver making 35 receptions.

However, in a slight similarity to his first season, Lester figured out he had two strong players, and in this case, one who truly was an elite lower division player. In the middle of the season, quarterback Joe Furco grabbed the starting quarterback role that he would hold the rest of his career at Elmhurst, but running back Scottie Williams proved to be moch more, eventually developing into the Gagliardi Trophy winner in 2012 as the best player in Division III after piling up 2,046 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground in his senior year.

Like the stars who preceded them, Furco and Williams were not winners of the genetic lottery. While Furco had a size similar to Kudyba, Williams was not the same size as D’Angelo. Well, actually, Williams matched D’Angelo’s weight at 170 pounds. The running back, however, was listed at 5’6” on Elmhurst’s website… and an eighth of an inch shy of 5’5” in his NFL draft profile.

Like he would say years later, Lester adapted his offense to these two players.
Not just that, he did so both during their freshman year and in their careers.

Without truly knowing what he had in Williams during the running back’s freshman year, Lester had an almost 50-50 split in run-pass playcalls in 2009. The coach did catch on as the season progressed though, giving Williams enough opportunities late in the season to end up leading the team in rushing.

Lester also switched horses to Furco for the sixth game of the season after he split snaps under center in the previous three games. Furco responded by leading the Bluejays to scores on five of his first six drives and never looked back.

From 2010 to 2012, Lester adapted to his two players, specifically that Williams was a special talent despite his size. The first of those three seasons, Lester called almost 54 percent passes. The next two seasons, things shifted dramatically as Elmhurst passed on under 44 percent of their plays in 2011, then on only 35.1 percent of their plays in 2012.

The shift paid off, as Furco and Williams both improved dramatically.

Furco improved his completion percentage and, more dramatically, his touchdown-to-interception ratio. After throwing 31 touchdowns and 23 picks in his first two seasons under a more pass-heavy scheme, he improved to 36 scores to 15 interceptions in his final two years in a more ground-centric attack.

While Furco was picking up his game with the offense being less reliant on his arm, Williams became a dominant force for Elmhurst. In 2010, Williams set the school record with 1,220 rushing yards (he would break his own record in each of his final two years, as well). More impressively, Williams’ 218 carries marked 68.5 percent of all run attempts. Lester clearly realized he had a bell cow and gave him the ball correspondingly.

Williams’ workload was bumped to 224 carries (for 1,405 yards) in 2011, then leapt to 329 attempts in 2012. The total number of carries as a senior is boosted by Elmhurst playing two additional postseason games, but Williams still averaged 27.4 rushes per game, a significant increase from his average of around 22 carries per game in each of the preceding two seasons.

And Williams’ workload was symptomatic of Lester’s shift to what was working. The team averaged 44.8 rushes per game, a bump over the preceding season’s 41.8 attempts per game.

How does it all translate to Syracuse?

While we do not know if there are any special skill position players on the roster, time will tell, specifically if Lester gives certain players a greater role in the offense. Devante McFarlane was listed as the starter at running back over George Morris II and the combination of playing time and touches early in the season will likely tip Lester’s hand if one is clearly superior, especially if one gets the bulk of the role.

If there is one player likely to be showcased in the Orange offense based in his previous play, it is sophomore wide receiver Steve Ishmael. Ishmael snagged 27 passes for 415 yards and three scores during a freshman season that saw four different quarterbacks take snaps. The 6’2” wideout’s season was highlighted by beating man-to-man coverage for a pair of touchdown passes against Florida State.

One other thing to remember about that Florida State game, it was the first week Tim Lester called plays for the Orange past season.

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Jim Stechschulte

About Jim Stechschulte

A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.
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