Perhaps it’s fitting that Halloween is a mere two days away since this season to date has been a bag of tricks and treats, on and off the field, for the Orange. So while pondering Scott Shafer’s costume choice (obviously something #hardnosed), let’s dig through Syracuse’s loot sack after eight games.
Every team deals with injuries. Losing your starting quarterback, though, falls under the “game changer” category. Terrel Hunt has been out since enduring a fractured fibula in the loss to Louisville. Hunt is expected to be sidelined four to six weeks making his return to the field this season questionable. His back-up, Austin Wilson, was injured the next week versus Florida State and hasn’t played since. Two of the Orange’s most dynamic pass catchers, Ashton Broyld and Brisly Estime, have both missed time to injury as well thereby hampering a passing attack that has struggled most of the year.
With Hunt and Wilson out, enter AJ Long. The true freshman debuted against the Seminoles (no pressure) and held his own as he connected on a pair of touchdowns to fellow frosh receiver, Steve Ishmael. Long helped guide SU to a road win the following week at Wake Forest before coming back to earth in a loss at Clemson against one of the stingiest defenses in the country. Long, Ishmael, and Ervin Philips, another true freshman, have all shown flashes of brilliance at time during the season. Syracuse fans have to feel optimistic about the offense’s future knowing those three are sure to play bigger roles in the years to come. If Long continues to improve, the more immediate question seeking an answer is who will take snaps under center once Hunt is healthy?
Hunt’s injury wasn’t the only “ugh” moment after the Louisville loss. Shafer demoted offensive coordinator George McDonald to wide receivers coach and elevated Tim Lester to that role. McDonald was only in his second season as offensive coordinator. While the offense has struggled this year (particularly in the red zone), not all of that can be put on McDonald’s shoulders. Notre Dame and Louisville aren’t exactly pushovers on the defensive side of the ball. McDonald was understandably upset about the decision and lashed out afterwards. He apologized almost immediately and Shafer has indicated that the coaching staff has put the episode behind them. What remain unclear are McDonald’s intentions after the season. He’s well known throughout the coaching circles as an ace recruiter, particularly in prospect-rich Florida. While Shafer would no doubt want McDonald to remain with the staff given his recruiting prowess, he’ll certainly have plenty of suitors should he decide to move on.
Did someone say recruiting? Syracuse continues to make strides on the recruiting trail. The Orange currently has 18 three-star commits per Scout.com. That’s the most of any Syracuse class since Doug Marrone began the process of restoring the program to respectability back in 2009 after He Who Shall Not Be Named torpedoed it to the depths of the Rutgers teams of the mid to late 1990s.
McDonald has had a big hand in the recruiting resurgence, along with Bobby Acosta’s work to re-establish Syracuse’s presence in New Jersey. Long, Ishmael, and Philips are proof that the current staff can not only identify talent, but, more importantly, get kids to sign on the dotted line on National Letter of Intent Day.
The last thing an athletic department wants is any unwelcome attention from the NCAA. Unfortunately for Dr. Gross and Syracuse, the NCAA is sniffing around the football and basketball programs concerning numerous violations. According to Syracuse.com, Shafer has been informed by the university that the investigation of the football program is not focused on his staff but instead a previous staff. Still, Shafer’s squad will be the ones to suffer the consequences if and when the NCAA hands down any penalties.
Despite the offensive struggles, the staff shake-up, the four-headed monster of Notre Dame, Louisville, Florida State and Clemson, and the specter of the NCAA, miraculously, a bowl berth is still possible for the Orange. Possible, yes. Easy, by no means. Sitting at 3-5, Syracuse must win three of its remaining four contests against N.C. State and Duke at home and at Pittsburgh and Boston College to close out the season. Earning another bowl appearance allows the Orange not only the additional exposure to potential recruits but also the added practice time leading up to the game.