Orange Watch: Spring practice signals a new chapter of Syracuse football

Sep 26, 2020; Syracuse, New York, USA; Syracuse Orange head coach Dino Babers looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets during the first quarter at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Item: The first week of Syracuse football spring practice is underway, a total of 14 allotted practice sessions including the annual Spring Game on April 1 (7:00 p.m. ET/ACC Network) in the Dome. Spring ball is a time for Dino Babers and his coaching staff to get on the same page, teach fundamentals, break in new schemes, and size up the roster depth for a crucial seventh season of Babers goal for a winning season and bowl game appearance.

“It feels great to be back,” was the opening salvo from Babers to the media this week as he looked forward to getting his players back on the field, with a tilted emphasis on the offense now that his fourth offensive coordinator in seven seasons (Robert Anae), new quarterback coach (Jason Beck) and a new wide receiver coach (Michael Johnson) are on staff.

In addition, expect the special teams units to sport a new style of play under the direction of that group’s new leader Bob Ligashesky, and it certainly helps that 2018 Lou Groza Award winner Andre Szmyt changed his mind in early December to come back and redeem himself from an uncharacteristic down season in which he missed five field goals and two PATs.

As usual in football, all eyes are on the most important position, the quarterback taking snaps. For the second straight season the program turned to the transfer portal to nab a player from a Power 5 school in redshirt freshman Dan Villari (jersey No. 12) from Michigan, to join incumbent Garrett Shrader after Tommy DeVito’s 2021 in-season departure and eventual landing spot at Illinois.

Villari is built in the Shrader mold at a listed 6’4” and 237 lbs., only bigger. He played sparingly (four games and only three passing attempts) in the Wolverines surprising run to the College Football Playoffs last season, but as the old adage goes, the backup quarterback is just a hit away from racing out onto the field, and Shrader (now jersey No. 6) certainly took a lot of hits last season rushing for 781 yards and 14 touchdowns, second-best in any season in school history.

“He’s been good,” Babers said of his newcomer this week. “He’s been learning a new (offense) as well. But to have a big old strapping guy back there who can do some things is going to be awesome. You need to have two (quarterbacks) just in case something happens, if you want to stay the same (competitive).”

With Sean Tucker’s return after a First Team All-American season and a Syracuse single season rushing mark of 1,496 yards, there needs to be more balance to the passing attack that was hampered by dropped passes and seemingly numerous occasions in games where the timing between Shrader and his receiving corps was off by a fraction of a yard here and there.

“We need to make sure we complement one another (running and passing),” Babers explained. “I mean the passes are there, they’re (the wide receivers) open. We’ve just got to make sure that we connect with them. I think we’re on the right page.”

» Related: Remembering former Syracuse football OC George DeLeone

Overall, Babers can enjoy his perch watching multiple spring practices knowing he’s got a lot of players competing, both inexperienced but talented, combined with seasoned veterans and recruits coming this summer, looking to navigate another tough ACC season right off the bat hosting Louisville (September 3) and home non-conference games against the likes of Purdue and Notre Dame.

“This is going to be a physical spring. Our numbers (roster size) are higher than they’ve ever been, thanks to COVID-19 and all of the other things that go along with the transfer portal. We want to make sure it’s a very, very taxing spring, we’ll be extremely physical.”

Hopefully that physicality is an integral part to the team’s 2022 fortunes because the goals have been clearly set by Babers’ boss, athletic director John Wildhack. The program needs to win, and the program needs to win now.

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About Brad Bierman 848 Articles
Now in his sixth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.