The third Syracuse spring football game under the stewardship of Dino Babers was a combination of the first two. Like the first one under Babers, the game was not a true scrimmage, just a split of offense and defense that enabled the team to spend time on situational play. As in last year’s event, there was not a lot of offensive fireworks.
The biggest cheers on Friday night were reserved for when Babers sent Rex Culpepper to replace Tommy DeVito at quarterback for the final drive and when Culpepper completed a touchdown pass to tight end Ravian Pierce. Culpepper, who is battling cancer, had been told early in the week he was not going to play, gave Babers a hug and settled in quickly, completing all four of his passes for 55 yards and that score to Pierce.
While Culpepper was the surprise star, he was not the quarterback most were interested in seeing Friday night. With returning starter Eric Dungey being held out, SU fans got their first glance at DeVito in action.
The four-star recruit who redshirted his freshman year looked pretty good, showing off two particularly strong traits. The first was his accuracy, particularly in the short and intermediate pass games.
Taking lass than half the snaps Friday night, DeVito frequently put the ball on his receivers’ hands, but his stat line was hurt by drops and a pair of passes being batted away by defenders. DeVito was not as successful throwing downfield, as his longest throw was about five yards beyond the outstretched arms of Jamal Custis, who had gotten a step on his man.
The other attribute that DeVito put on display was his running ability. While not a strong running threat, DeVito showed the ability to take advantage of running lanes with both speed and the vision to cutback to find open space.
The game featured first team players against second team units on both sides of the ball, so starters are expected to look good. In fact, three of the four touchdowns were by players who started last year, as Dontae Strickland had a three-yard scoring run and Pierce had a pair of touchdown catches. Only freshman quarterback Chance Amie, a spring enrollee, scored for the second unit when he kept the ball on a run-pass option and darted in from seven yards out.
The running game was the best example of the game being structured to show off the starters. Strickland’s score highlighted his eight carries for 81 yards and Moe Neal, who split time in the first string backfield, had 70 yards on ten carries. Hopefully, the two will be able to have success when facing defenses other than the Orange second string.
The top receivers in the game were also from the starting unit, as Pierce had scores of 14 and 17 yards as part of his four catches for 42 yards. Devin Butler, the top returning wideout, picked up a game-high 54 yards on his three receptions.
After tying for sixth among ACC tight ends in receptions last year, but only two of the four players ahead of him returning, Pierce looks like he could turn into an all-conference player.
While the defense did not force a turnover on 85 offensive plays, a painful reminder of their five-game turnover drought last season, they stopped the offense on nine of 16 drives. Three different players recorded sacks, including one of DeVito on a heavy blitz where the quarterback barely had time to think.
One player who did impress that Orange fans will have to wait a little longer to see regularly is wide receiver Trishton Jackson, a transfer from Michigan State. While he did have one bad drop, he made up for it immediately after, catching a short pass and cutting back to break free for around 20 yards. Jackson will have two years of eligibility after sitting out this coming season due to NCAA rules.
Perhaps the most important takeaway of the event, at least from Babers’ point of view, was no players were injured. Babers added during the post-game press conference that every player who did not participate is expected to be ready to go when camp starts prior to the August 31 opener at Western Michigan.