One of the themes echoing in our ears about this Syracuse football team is that they are very young and inexperienced. The team had to replace eight defensive starters. Two calendar years ago, the top offensive skill position players were in high school.
The list of youth contributing on the roster goes on and on and much of that talent excites the fanbase… until it comes to wins and losses. Particularly losses.
When the Orange started with three straight wins, that fanbase was excited. Even when SU fell at home to LSU, but turned in a very competitive effort with former walk-on Zack Mahoney at quarterback, there was a lot of electricity surrounding the program.
Then, three straight losses short-circuited that electricity. The last two defeats were by a total of nine points, the former in triple overtime and the latter to a nationally-ranked, ACC Coastal Division-leading Pittsburgh team on a final play field goal.
And, now, the worm has turned enough in the fanbase that the hashtag #IStandWithShafer is a real thing.
So, why does head coach Scott Shafer need a hashtag to support him? I have no idea.
(Okay, I do have an idea. In those first four games, the team showed so much more promise, particularly on offense, than what has been expected for a long time, the fanbase got very excited, leading to some oversized expectations from the team. When the team started to struggle, the fans felt let down and consequently turned on the one guy who can get fired. After all, you can’t fire the kids.
Maybe Shafer should take a lesson from this experience: Don’t bother making the team good because people will keep moving the bar of how good the team should be and you will never match it without being an undefeated national champion with an average margin of victory near 70 points per game.
Okay, my sarcasm has been spent… for now.)
It’s one thing to say the team is young. It’s another thing to understand how young. It’s also another thing to understand how impressive the young talent is.
True freshman quarterback Eric Dungey stands atop the ACC and 12th in the nation in quarterback efficiency. He’s also netted 260 yards rushing and that figure includes yards lost on sacks.
Jordan Fredericks has taken over the starting role for the Orange at running back as a true freshman and has not only led the team in rushing yards in three games, but he tops the team in rushing yards for the season. Oh, and he is tied with Dungey for the team lead in rushing touchdowns.
Sophomore wide receiver Steve Ishmael just logged the best statistical game of his career against Pitt and leads the team with 25 catches. Sophomore H-back Erv Philips has 17 receptions, good for second on the team. Those two each have four touchdown receptions, as well. Junior Brisly Estime is the top big-play threat, averaging nearly 18 yards per reception.
All three of those offensive skill players came on board after Shafer was named the head coach.
In case you were wondering about the defense, the top five tacklers are all sophomores. Starting this weekend’s game at Florida State? A senior, two juniors, and EIGHT sophomores and redshirt freshmen. The defensive two-deep also includes another half dozen players with two years on campus or less, including three true freshmen.
The youth on the roster theory should also be extended to Shafer. Yes, this is his 25th year as a coach, which means he was a college football coach before any player on the roster was born. But, this is only his third season as a head coach and he has only 32 games under his belt with the full responsibility of the team under him.
So, yes, he has lots of years as a coordinator under his belt, but not a whole lot of time overseeing everything for the team. All those administrative moves left to the discretion of the head coach have been falling on Shafer’s shoulders for a relatively short time. Time outs? Yep. Going for it on fourth down? Uh huh. Those fake punts and field goals that have made Riley Dixon a folk hero? None of those happen without Shafer making those decisions.
So, even though he is not calling every single play, it’s a lot more responsibility than what Shafer had ever had before becoming the head coach at SU.
Can he grow into the additional responsibilities? Hopefully. There are a couple examples from the Pitt game where Shafer may decide to change how he deploys his timeouts, one on each side of the ball.
With 38 seconds remaining in the second quarter and the Orange facing second-and-goal at the Pitt 5, Shafer called one of his three timeouts. Dungey ended up scrambling for a yard and the Orange burned another timeout with 31 ticks on the lock. SU ended up scoring on the next play, leaving 26 seconds for the Panthers, who converted it into three points and stealing back some momentum before halftime.
In the future, perhaps Shafer will have his offensive coordinator prep two plays during the first time out to let more time run off the clock. After all, he still had a pair of timeouts in his pocket (he only needed one) and could have managed the clock to not leave any time for the opponent.
Pitt soaked up the final 9:20 of the clock with a 19-play drive that ended in the game-winning field goal. That came a week after Virginia forced overtime with an 18-play drive that also ended with a short field goal.
While it is hindsight to now say that Shafer should have called his first timeout on fourth down to prep his team for the possibility of a fake punt by Pitt, that play (and the previous week’s drive) could change his coaching process. That Panther fourth down came after eight plays on the drive. Should the same situation arise in a future game (late-game sustained drive by the opponent, three timeouts to work with), maybe Shafer will call for a break in the action just to give his defense a breather and a chance for both his players and his coaching staff to re-focus.
Adding further support to this young head football coach is the cliche about college football coaches should get four years so that they can coach their own recruits. Well, Shafer is pretty much doing that already.
There are a couple things to note about this, though.
One is that there are more young guys on the roster who are yet to see action for the Orange. The Syracuse roster lists a full offensive line – two tackles, two guards, and a center – as part of the current freshman class and only backup left tackle Cody Conway is on the two-deep. Who’s to say that, when the young guys not currently on the field get their shot, they will not be able to contribute in a manner like some of their classmates who are currently playing?
The other is that the young guys are getting college level coaching and conditioning for the first time. They are getting better prepared for this level of play, as well as getting valuable playing experience that should only help them develop for the future.
The best thing for a young team such as the 2015 Syracuse football team would be a wise sage at the helm who makes all the little moves correctly to maximize that youthful squad’s chance at victory. Shafer may not be that wise sage right now, but you do not last this long without learning a lot along the way, even when you’re a young coach like him.