Syracuse athletics director John Wildhack addressed the media in a press conference on Monday about the football team. Here are four takeaways from what he said.
Dino Babers will return
The biggest takeaway was also perhaps the least surprising. Dino Babers will return for his seventh season as the head coach of Syracuse in 2022.
The official announcement came a day after SU announced a flurry of coaching staff changes, including the dismissals of offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, tight ends coach Reno Ferri and defensive line coach Vince Reynolds.
The official party line was that Babers’ buyout, likely a hefty sum since he’s signed through 2024, had nothing to do with his return. But given the relative limited financial resources of the Orange, a private school tucked in the snowy northeast, playing in a conference filled with state schools flushed with cash, had to have played a factor, regardless of what Wildhack stated.
“Overall, I’m pleased with how this team competed this season,” Wildhack said. “We saw growth in a number of areas.”
There was growth in the bottom line, with the Orange improving to 5-7 from a season ago when SU limped to a 1-10 finish. However, Babers has been on The Hill for six seasons now, and has only one winning season, a 10-3 mark in 2018, to show for it.
The bellwether has been set
While Wildhack didn’t assign a specific win total, he repeatedly mentioned the goal is for the Orange to appear consistently in the postseason. Syracuse fell one win short of bowl eligibility this season, and has only made one bowl appearance under Babers.
“We all want to win more games,” Wildhack said. “We all want to play that 13th game.”
That will once again not be an easy feat for the Orange in 2022. Aside from the always grueling ACC schedule, SU’s non-conference schedule consists of Wagner, UConn, Purdue and Notre Dame. Syracuse went 3-1 in its non-conference slate this season and still did not reach the postseason.
The passing game must improve
Syracuse ditched its passing attack this season in favor of a ground-and-pound game, led by quarterback Garrett Shrader and running back Sean Tucker. But Shrader struggled in the last third of the season, not eclipsing 70 passing yards in games against NC State, Boston College and Louisville.
He did, however, show promise in the finale against Pitt, throwing for 217 yards and two touchdowns, though the Orange struggled to consistently move the ball outside of the two scoring drives.
Wildhack believes that an offseason of working with his wide receivers and continuity across the offensive line (SU loses only one starter) and skill positions (including Tucker, an All-American candidate), should allow the Orange to return to a more balanced attack in 2022.
“Garrett’s got ability,” Wildhack said. “We’ve got to refine that ability. He didn’t start until Week 4 so the offseason’s going to be important.”
Another aspect of improvement will come from hiring Gilbert’s replacement. Gilbert torpedoed SU’s offense, as it averaged just 24.9 points per game, which was 172nd in the NCAA.
“The quality of your assistant coaches is incredibly important,” Wildhack said. “Especially in football.”
Special Teams needs help
Syracuse struggled mightily in special teams, with coordinator Justin Lustig leaving for Vanderbilt in the offseason.
Wildhack hinted that the special teams by committee would come to and end. It comes at a time when the Orange desperately need help.
Kicker Andre Szmyt, who won the 2018 Lou Groza Award, made only 9 of 14 field goals. He also missed two PATs.
Punter James Williams struggled with an undisclosed injury and the Orange was forced to start walk-on Ian Hawkins in the last third of the season.
Syracuse also allowed a kick return for a touchdown against NC State.
“Special teams is something we need to address as a program,” Wildhack said.