For the third time in less than a decade, a new era is underway for the Syracuse University football team. The Orange now call the Atlantic Coast Conference home, specifically the Atlantic Division. Syracuse shifts into the ACC with Pitt, reuniting with former Big East foes Boston College, Miami (Fl.), and Virginia Tech.
Not only is there a change of conference affiliation for SU, but defensive coordinator Scott Shafer was promoted to head coach after Doug Marrone took the head coaching position with the Buffalo Bills and looks to further the improvements his predecessor put in place. Marrone posted a 25-25 record in four seasons, including last season’s 8-5 mark and a second Pinstripe Bowl victory in three seasons, and turns over a program in significantly better shape than the one he took over in 2009.
Shafer, who was originally brought on by Marrone as defensive coordinator shortly after taking the SU job, is a first-time head coach after spending over two decades on the defensive side of the ball. The son of a football coach, Shafer is not without experience on the offensive side of the ball, having spent his playing career, including college, as a quarterback. Shafer was forced to assemble a mostly new coaching staff, as only two assistants remained on staff after he was elevated to the position.
Shafer’s aggressive defensive unit, which was sixth in the nation in tackles for loss last season, is expected to shoulder a large portion of the load for the Orange their first trip through the ACC under new defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough. Bullough has coached with Shafer before and they both prefer an aggressive style that puts the impetus on the opponent to handle lots of different looks and schemes. While only six starters return on the defensive unit, players promoted into starting spots have previously played significant snaps at defensive tackle, linebacker, and safety. The defensive ends, however, are clearly the positional group most shrouded by doubt.
Most of the questions on the offensive side come from the significant losses felt by last year’s unit, which ranked 17th in the nation in yards per game. Left tackle Justin Pugh and quarterback Ryan Nassib were both drafted by the New York Giants and record-setting receiver Alec Lemon also exhausted his eligibility. The cupboard is not bare, however, as the team will rely on a deep stable of running backs, led by Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley, who combined for over 2,000 yards on the ground last season, and three returning starters to the offensive line. The passing game, however, is mostly an unknown quantity, as there will be a new quarterback and significant turnover at wide receiver from last year’s unit. The man shepherding this unit into the ACC is George McDonald, the new offensive coordinator. McDonald has made his bones as a wide receiver coach, but was also the offensive coordinator at Western Michigan in the 2006 season, while Shafer was their defensive coordinator.
Scott Shafer looks to continue on the success the Orange had under Doug Marrone. It will be tough sledding for the Orange, as they have to replace three superb offensive players, including a record-setting quarterback and wide receiver combo and their best offensive lineman. The coaching staff has gone through a lot of turnover, as well, but Shafer has surrounded himself with many colleagues with whom he has worked previously to create familiarity.
While Shafer’s enthusiasm and emotional approach seem to be resonating with the players on the roster, it remains to be seen if the long-time defensive coordinator can handle the role atop the totem pole. The biggest question marks on the field are at quarterback, wide receiver, the right side of the offensive line, and defensive end.
Shafer should be able to tap into the emotional well of his roster and help motivate the team in their first season in their new conference. A 6-6 season and a bowl berth is a fair goal for this group, which shows depth in most places on the roster for the first time in over a decade. If Oklahoma transfer QB Drew Allen shows what made him a heralded high school recruit and Shafer handles the step up to the head coach role, a couple more wins are certainly possible.