Late in the first quarter of the ninth game of the season, starting quarterback Eric Dungey was injured, prematurely ending his season. Dungey had a strong season in that abbreviated season, having a hand in 21 touchdowns while completing just under 65 percent of his passes and averaging just under 330 yards through the air over those first eight games. With a full offseason under his belt in Babers’ system, a full slate from the junior could result in him writing “Eric Dungey” all over the SU record book.
Former walk-on Zach Mahoney was the back-up last season and is fighting for that role again. While he came to SU as more of a runner than passer, Mahoney completed just over 60 percent of his passes for 943 yards and eight scores. Mahoney was a monster in the season finale at Pitt, throwing for five scores and adding two on the ground.
Freshman Tommy Devito comes to Syracuse with a ton of excitement and finished the summer scrapping for the backup spot. The highest-rated recruit in the incoming freshman class, DeVito is a four-star recruit ranked in the top 150 nationally by ESPN. With an illness late in camp has him possibly settling for the third spot on the depth chart, DeVito is a redshirt possibility, but could be kept on the active roster.
POSITIONAL PREDICTION: Dungey will be the unquestioned starter for the Orange and will back it up with a massive season, provided he stays healthy. In his shortened season last year, Dungey threw for enough yards to have the third-highest total in school history and the single-season records of 3,749 yards and 26 touchdowns should be in his sights this time around. Mahoney is a capable and experienced backup who can provide security behind Dungey. In an ideal world, DeVito would be redshirted to preserve his future eligibility while he learns the system. That said, the desire to get the Orange back to a bowl game will keep the freshman on the active roster as a “just in case” option, even if he does not supplant Mahoney for the backup role.
Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal were a fair one-two punch last season. The two combined for just over 900 yards and a half dozen rushing scores and Strickland added 21 receptions out of the backfield. The two should reprise their roles from last season, with Strickland representing the thunder as an inside runner and Neal as the lightning as more of a slashing runner.
The freshman class offers a couple intriguing additions to the backfield. Markenzy Pierre, a freshman from Florida, rolled up over 5,000 yards in his high school career, including over 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior. At 5’11” and 214 pounds, Pierre profiles as an inside runner to press Strickland. The other intriguing freshman is Chris Elmore, a 280-pound bowling ball from Chicago. Elmore looks headed for a role as a short yardage and blocking back and is expected to see the field as a freshman.
POSITIONAL PREDICTION: Strickland and Neal will start the season as the two lead backs with Neal getting many more looks as a receiver than he did as a freshman. Strickland is the likely starter and ends the season with the most carries. With his shiftiness and speed (his first carry for the Orange went for a 49-yard score), Neal’s ability out in space will be utilized more, especially as he spent some of spring practice as a wide receiver in the slot. Elmore will get opportunities at the goal line and will carve out a role as a short-yardage specialist, both as a ball-carrier and a blocker.
Amba Etta-Tawo was a godsend last season, earning All-America honors as a graduate transfer, rolling up school records for a season in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns in his lone season of eligibility for Syracuse. By moving on, he leaves a significant hole in the wide receiver rotation.
That said, last season’s second-leading receiver returns to the slot. In fact, if not for Etta-Tawo, Erv Philips would own the single-season reception record for the Orange, having snared 90 passes last season. Philips is the lead possession receiver for SU and should threaten the 100-reception mark, which would help him blow by Alec Lemon for the most receptions in school history. Lemon owns the mark with 201 catches and Philips enters the season in a tie for fifth-place with 134. In fact, six catches will move Philips past a cluster of players into second all-time at Syracuse.
Steve Ishmael, who finished third on the season last year, set a personal-best with 48 receptions last season, pushing his career total to 114 grabs, which places him ninth in school history. The shift to Babers’ offense had to leave some disappointed in the modest statistical gains made by Ishmael as a junior and leads to hope for a big senior season.
That, however is where the list of established contributors at wide receiver ends. The 6’5” redshirt junior Jamal Custis has been a tantalizing prospect based on his natural gifts, but has not provided much production. Custis had five grabs in two seasons before redshirting due to injury last season. Adly Enoicy, another redshirt junior, is another 6’5” player SU fans have been waiting to explode, but has one career catch to his name. Those fans may be waiting longer, as Enoicy spent a lot of camp on the shelf due to injury.
Devin C. Butler, a 6’3” sophomore, was a quarterback and defensive back in high school before converting to wide receiver at Syracuse. He played in five games as a true freshman before his season was ended by injury, but pulled in a sensational touchdown catch in the spring game. Butler could start as the second outside receiver for the Orange. Sean Riley, the backup to Philips, returns in that role this season after grabbing 11 passes as a freshman. One of the smallest players on the roster, Riley has great speed and moves in the open field, giving the team a different attribute when lined up in the slot. Redshirt senior Sean Avant will also be in the mix for playing time at the inside receiver spot.
A pair of freshmen look like possible contributors, as well. Russell Thompson-Bishop fits the outside receiver mold while Nykeim Johnson profiles at the inside receiver spot. Thompson-Bishop, who had 16 touchdown catches as a senior in high school, offers the size Babers likes running outside routes. Johnson, who has the quickness needed to flourish at inside receiver, rolled up over 2,700 receiving yards as a prep player.
POSITIONAL PREDICTION: Philips will be the centerpiece of the passing game, becoming the first player to catch 100 passes in a season at Syracuse as he is used heavily to keep the chains moving and sustain drives. Ishmael will cement himself as the #2 option and best complete receiver on the roster, adding strong downfield blocking. Look for Custis to finally make his size and speed combination pay off and earn the third starting spot while Butler and Johnson add depth to the receiving rotation.
There simply is not much to write about the returning players at tight end for SU. Cameron MacPherson and Kendall Moore caught a grand total of six passes for 49 yards last season and neither returns to the roster this season, as both graduated. There are two new names of interest however and one figures to have a significant impact for the Orange.
Ravian Pierce, who caught 77 passes in two seasons of junior college action and is a top recruit coming out of junior college, has joined the Orange with two years of eligibility remaining. A four-star recruit coming out of high school, Pierce arrived on campus in January and brings a combination of size and athleticism that should be problematic for Orange opponents.
Freshman Aaron Hackett brings potential in the passing game, but veteran Kyle Kleinberg figures to be the primary reserve to Pierce.
POSITIONAL PREDICTION: Pierce is the impact player he is expected to be, opening up an avenue that Babers’ offense could not access last season. That added dimension makes things open up just a little more for the other Orange skill position players.
This season’s offensive line group is a mixture of experience and youth, but leaning heavily toward the young side of things. The group was also dealt a significant blow in the offseason as redshirt junior left guard Aaron Roberts, who started all 12 games last year and led the team with 39 knockdown blocks, was injured and will miss the upcoming season.
There are a couple returning starters on the line, led by redshirt senior Jamar McGloster, who will take his place at right tackle once more after starting every contest there last season. McGloster was one of two players to start every game at the same spot on the line last season (Roberts was the other) and was second on the team in snaps played last season. Redshirt sophomore Evan Adams looks be the starter at right guard next to McGloster after playing in every game last season and starting the final nine contests. Adams, the heaviest lineman on the roster at just shy of 340 pounds, was second on the team in knockdown blocks with 29.
Cody Conway, who has seen action in 15 games across two seasons, including eight starts at left tackle as a sophomore, will anchor the left side of the line. Conway missed three games due to injury last season, but was able to return for the back half of the schedule. With Roberts on the shelf, there has been a competition for the left guard spot and it appears Sam Heckel will be the victor. Heckel, who is yet to play for the Orange after redshirting as a freshman, was a three-star recruit in high school in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
Another redshirt freshman, Airon Servais, is line to be the starter at center. Servais has been slowed in camp by an ankle injury, but is expected to be healthy in time for the beginning of the season. Like Heckel, Servais was also a three-star prospect from Wisconsin.
The depth behind the starting unit on the line is very young, as players appearing at every spot on the second string offensive line on the spring depth chart have at least three years of eligibility left. The most familiar name belongs to Colin Byrne, who started eight games last season at center. Byrne is in competition for action at left guard, but could be in the mix at center again if Servais’ injury does not clear up.
POSITIONAL PREDICTION: The offensive line will be the group that determines how the offense goes. While it is a positive that the two most experienced players are the bookends, the middle trio is mostly inexperienced, as only Evan Adams has suited up for SU, and the reserves are just as young. This group will need to stay healthy and gel quickly, as the run game will need creases opened up and the passing game will need to keep Dungey upright with his eyes on his receivers and not rushing defenders.
RETURNING OFFENSIVE STARTERS (8): OG Evan Adams, OT Cody Conway, QB Eric Dungey, WR Steve Ishmael, OT Jamar McGloster, WR Erv Philips, OG Aaron Roberts, RB Dontae Strickland
LEADING RETURNING RUSHERS: Dontae Strickland – 162 carries for 566 yards and four touchdowns; Eric Dungey – 125 carries for 293 yards and six touchdowns
LEADING RETURNING PASSER: Eric Dungey – 230 completions in 355 attempts for 2,679 yards with 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions
LEADING RETURNING RECEIVERS: Erv Philips – 90 receptions for 822 yards and six touchdowns; Steve Ishmael – 48 receptions for 559 yards and one touchdown