What a difference a year makes for Scott Shafer and the Syracuse Orange football team.
At the conclusion of spring practice this past weekend, Shafer’s program possesses traction and momentum in the form of a thrilling win against Minnesota in the Texas Bowl, a talented recruiting class partially harvested from fertile grounds as Florida and Illinois and an offense that’s comfortable with George McDonald’s up-tempo schemes.
This wasn’t the case last spring. After former coach Doug Marrone and most of the staff shuffled off to the Buffalo and the NFL allure, Shafer had to quickly assemble a coaching staff and salvage Syracuse’s recruiting class. The focus of spring practice on the offensive side of the ball was how to replace quarterback Ryan Nassib and receivers Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales. Terrel Hunt emerged as the front-runner to replace Nassib but he still had to earn it when the pre-season rolled around. Though Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen earned the starting nod in the season opener, Hunt replaced the ineffective Allen during the third game of the year and didn’t look back.
Hunt is now firmly entrenched as the starter and is the clear leader of the offense. The Orange has a huge leg up on those conference foes that will spend the pre-season searching for an heir-apparent at the most important position on the field.
But not everyone thinks so.
Steve Lassan of Athlonsports.com recently ranked the projected starting quarterbacks for all 14 ACC teams heading into the 2014 season. Lassan ranked Hunt as the eighth best quarterback. Eighth, as in, the best guy in the bottom half of the league. He lists Jameis Winston of Florida State, Marquise Williams of North Carolina and Anthony Boone of Duke as the top three. Hard to argue with any of their resumes. Spots four through seven are where the double-takes commence.
Checking at number four is Cole Stoudt of Clemson. The senior signal caller is tasked with the unenviable challenge of making fans forget about all-everything Tajh Boyd. In three seasons as Boyd’s back-up, Stoudt threw for 742 yards and eight touchdowns with only one interception. His completion rate is an astounding 72.2 percent. He saw action in eight of the Tigers’ 13 games but most of that was mop up duty in games that were out of hand. Twenty nine of his 47 completions and four of his five touchdowns came in two games; one of those being against South Carolina State – a MEAC squad.
Sophomore Chad Voytik of the Pittsburgh Panthers is fifth on Lassan’s list. Voytik, ranked a 4-star recruit by both Rivals.com and Scout.com, was one of the gems of the Panthers’ 2012 recruiting class. As the back-up to Tom Savage last year, Voytik saw action in only four contests totaling 11 pass attempts. To his credit, he completed 5-of-9 attempts in Pitt’s 30-27 bowl win against Bowling Green.
Placing sixth is Louisville’s Will Gardner. Like Stoudt at Clemson, Gardner will attempt to fill some very big shoes in those of Teddy Bridgewater. And similar to Voytik, Gardner has almost no experience completing 8-of-12 passes with two touchdowns. He played in five games last season but none after a road win at South Florida in late October. Complicating his first season at the helm will be learning Bobby Petrino’s system after Charlie Strong left for Texas.
Sliding into the seventh spot right ahead of Hunt is Jacoby Brissett of North Carolina State. Brissett was ineligible to play last season after sitting out as a transfer from Florida. In his two seasons with the Gators, Brissett connected on 41-of-74 passes with three touchdowns in only two starts.
This brings us to Hunt.
Syracuse finished 7-5 in games Hunt played and he started the Orange’s last 10 games of the season. His ACC passing numbers weren’t stellar – three touchdowns and eight interceptions isn’t exactly first team all-conference material – but he did improve as the year went along. Thanks to the recruiting efforts of Shafer, McDonald and the rest of the staff, the Syracuse receiving corps received an injection of talent and speed that should allow Hunt to blossom in the passing game.
His ability to run the ball is another weapon that teams can’t overlook as he tallied 500 yards on the ground and seven scores. Hunt truly emerged as the leader of the Syracuse offense in the last two games of the season while showing a flair for the dramatic as well.
With Syracuse’s bowl eligibility resting in his hands and a four point deficit showing on the scoreboard, Hunt found tight end Josh Parris for an 8-yard touchdown strike with six seconds remaining in the regular season to stun Boston College, 34-31. The score capped an 8-play, 75 yard drive with 2:08 to go. A month later against Minnesota, Hunt scampered 12 yards with under a minute to play to rally Syracuse to a 21-17 victory for the Orange’s second straight bowl win.
Stoudt, Voytik, Gardner and Brissett all might develop into top-flight college quarterbacks. And perhaps all four enjoy more impressive credentials than Hunt, be it playing at a showcase program or having been a blue-chip recruit. What separates Hunt, though, is precisely what the others don’t have. Meaningful game day starting experience.
Rankings are fun for fans to read while pondering potential. But results are what matter most. Get ready, Orange Nation. Terrel Hunt is just getting started.