After starting each of the last two seasons, Tommy DeVito returns with a nose ahead of transfer Garrett Shrader for the starting job while head coach Dino Babers expects both players to take snaps this season. DeVito had a solid sophomore season, but had his junior year cut short by injury, playing in just the first four games. A rebound in quality to more in line with his sophomore year level of production (63% completion percentage, 2,360 yards, 19 touchdowns, five interceptions) would be a big plus for the Orange.
Shrader comes to Syracuse after two seasons at Mississippi State and offers a greater threat with his legs than DeVito, who fits the role of a more traditional pocket passer. As a freshman with the Bulldogs, Shrader played in ten games, including making four starts, completing 57.5% of his passes for 1,170 yards with an 8-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and added 587 yards and six scores in the run game.
Jacobian Morgan saw a modest amount of play as a freshman last season, throwing 49 passes in three games, including starting against Boston College. Dillon Markiewicz got a few snaps as a freshman and incoming freshman Justin Lamson joins the reserves.
No matter who is taking the snaps for SU, the passing game must be more productive. Orange quarterbacks completed a cumulative 51.5 percent of their passes and averaged 5.67 yards per attempt last season. Of 128 teams in the FBS, SU was 121st in completion percentage and 115th in yards per attempts.
With both Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard opting out prior to last season and Jawhar Jordan getting injured early in the campaign, the bulk of the ground game fell onto the shoulders of Sean Tucker and the true freshman responded. Given double-digit carries in eight games, Tucker ran up 626 yards and four scores, including 112 yards and a pair of touchdowns to key the victory over Georgia Tech.
Cooper Lutz converted from wide receiver to the backfield and stepped into the backup role. Lutz was fairly successful in limited play, picking up 81 yards against Wake Forest when Tucker was injured, then adding 114 against Notre Dame in the season finale, including an 80-yard touchdown burst.
Adding to the mix are Adams and Howard, who have both returned to the team. The duo combined for 673 yards and six touchdowns in the 2019 campaign. Adams profiles as more of a every down back while Howard has filled a short-yardage role previously, piling up seven scores as a freshman in 2018.
Tucker, Adams, and Howard each have well over 100 carries in their respective collegiate careers, so there should be a level of confidence that the Orange can generate a respectable rushing attack.
The Orange return their two top receivers from last season in Taj Harris and Anthony Queeley. Harris has performed well in his first three seasons in Orange, never logging below 37 receptions and 559 yards in a season, and stands in a tie with Marvin Harrison for sixth place in the Syracuse record books with 135 receptions and in ninth place for receiving yards with 1,857. A big season could vault Harris to the top in both statistics.
Queeley saw his first significant time at wide receiver last season and piled up 37 catches for 378 yards, snaring at least three balls in nine games. Another step forward from Queeley could provide SU with a second outside threat to help open up things for the offense.
Beyond those two, the Orange desperately need a third wide receiver to become a consistent contributor. By season under the Babers regime:
- 2016 – four wide receivers with at least 48 receptions, led by Amba Etta-Tawo with 94 and Erv Philips with 90
- 2017 – three wide receivers with at least 33 receptions (tight end Ravian Pierce had 29), led Steve Ishmael with 104 and Philips’ with 89
- 2018 – four wide receivers with at least 40 receptions, led by Sean Riley with 64 and Jamal Custis with 51
- 2019 – three wide receivers with at least 36 catches (running back Moe Neal had 29 and tight end Aaron Hackett 23), led by Trishton Jackson with 66
Nykeim Johnson was third with 20 receptions last season. While playing only 11 games suppressed totals and poor play and injuries at quarterback and on the line helped drive offensive production down, the Orange offense is still in dire need of additional contributors on the perimeter.
So, the question shifts to who that third contributor could be. Courtney Jackson had ten receptions, Sharod Johnson four, and Damien Alford and Trebor Pena had one apiece. Alford is 6’6” and could provide a different dimension with his size. The other three are all around six feet even and Pena showed breakaway speed with a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown last season.
The identity of that third primary contributor is probably is not that important, at least not nearly as much as that there is that third contributor. Sharod Johnson was listed as the third starting wide receiver on the season-opening depth chart, so he has the inside track to make a strong impression.
Aaron Hackett transferred out following last season, leaving sophomore Luke Benson as the only tight end on the roster with a collegiate reception to his name, as he has 14 grabs in his two seasons. Benson has very good speed for a tight end, as evidenced by a 53-yard score last season and another covering 70 yards as a freshman.
Freed from filling in on the offensive line as he did last season, Chris Elmore will return to his utility role as a tight end/fullback/H-back. Elmore has done a little bit of everything in his time at Syracuse and should return to his blocking role at those assorted positions.
Both Steven Mahar Jr. and Maximilian Mang saw time on special teams last season as freshmen, but are yet to play on offense.
It’s surprising to have a line with this much starting experience among its players with such a poor track record over the last couple seasons, but here we are.
The pandemic is enabling Airon Servais and his 48 career starts to return for his sixth year on campus. Carlos Vettorello has started each of the 23 games in his two seasons on campus, including the last 14 at center. Matthew Bergeron has started the last 16 contests at tackle and Dakota Davis has 15 starts at guard under his belt. Darius Tisdale started ten games for the Orange last season and has been practicing in camp in Davis’ place due to a leg injury.
Add in Chris Bleich’s eight starts for Florida at guard before sitting out last season as a transfer and the apparent makings of a good starting five are right there. Two tackles (Bergeron and Servais), three guards (Bleich, Davis and Tisdale) and a center (Vettorello) with starting experience sounds great. While Davis’ injury has kept him out of practice to this point, Bleich has also missed some of training camp with an illness. Davis is expected to be available for the opener, but Tisdale is listed as the starter for the opener at Ohio.
The rest of the group is young and inexperienced, a combination of freshmen and players whose collective on-field experience is special teams snaps and a few plays late in blowouts. Noteworthy among the group is Kalan Ellis, a freshman who was in the first-team offense lineup at Fan Fest with Tisdale moved out to tackle with Bergeron not participating. In any case, this lack of quality depth underscores the need for the starting five to play well and stay healthy to power any offensive success.
- RETURNING OFFENSIVE STARTERS (8): RT Matthew Bergeron, QB Tommy DeVito, WR Taj Harris, WR Anthony Queeley, LT Aaron Servais, RG Darius Tisdale, RB Sean Tucker, C Carlos Vettorello
- LEADING RETURNING RUSHERS: Sean Tucker – 626 yards on 137 attempts and four touchdowns, Cooper Lutz – 246 yards on 43 attempts and one touchdown
- LEADING RETURNING PASSER: Tommy DeVito – 48 completions in 96 attempts for 593 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions
- LEADING RETURNING RECEIVERS: Taj Harris – 58 receptions for 733 yards and five touchdowns; Anthony Queeley – 37 receptions for 378 yards and two touchdowns