What to watch for in Syracuse football’s spring game

Zaire Franklin
Central Michigan Chippewas wide receiver Mark Chapman (3) runs with the ball after a catch as Syracuse Orange linebacker Zaire Franklin (4) leaps over teammate Jonathan Thomas (23) during the second quarter at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports.

Syracuse plays its Orange & Blue Game at 7:00 p.m. at the Carrier Dome on Friday.

Here’s what to watch for in the game:

Who emerges on the defensive line?

It’s no secret that the defensive line is Syracuse’s most concerning position group heading into fall.

The Orange lost its entire starting front and most of its major contributors from 2021 as it looks to remake the front.

One intriguing option is true freshman Francois Nolton. SU’s highest rated recruit in the 2022 class enrolled early and has been participating in spring practices.

Expect redshirt junior Caleb Okechukwu to emerge as a top candidate, as well. He appeared in all 12 games at defensive end and has two career sacks to date.

This is the position that needs to be most closely monitored in the spring game.

Newcomers in the secondary

Syracuse added a pair of defensive back transfers in the offseason in Bralyn Oliver (Louisville) and Alijah Clark (Rutgers).

Clark is continuing to recover from a lower body injury that sidelined him for half of 2021, while Oliver has been working with the second team during practices.

While Clark will be the only player available for the spring game, it will certainly be a good preview of how he’ll be used in the fall.

Who starts on the O-Line?

Airon Servais played at Syracuse for six seasons, and made a school record 60 straight starts. His veteran presence and versatility (he bounced back and forth between center and tackle during his SU career) will be missed.

Now comes the question of how SU will replace him.

Kalan Ellis saw first team snaps in spring ball before he was sidelined by a sprained ankle, and since then, Darius Tisdale has also seen reps with the 1s.

With Ellis out, Babers may use it as an opportunity to get a look at some of his younger offensive lineman.

Syracuse returns four of five starters in what should be a veteran offensive line, and Friday will be a good look at who could be the fifth lineman.

How do the quarterbacks look?

While Syracuse had one of the best rushing attacks in the nation last year, incumbent starter Garrett Shrader struggled significantly through the air, completing just 52.6 percent of his passes.

At one point in the season, he didn’t top 70 passing yards for three straight games.

Syracuse added a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in the offseason. That should help Shrader to produce better results.

Who gets slotted behind Shrader will also be of interest. Syracuse lost two quarterbacks in the offseason, but added Michigan transfer Dan Villari. They also return Justin Lamson and JaCobian Morgan, who will all be vying for the No. 2 spot.

Friday’s game should be a strong indicator of who has the inside track to becoming the primary backup.

» Related: Syracuse offense feeling ‘optimism’ after spring practices

Who emerges among the WRs?

The Orange’s top deep threat from 2021, Taj Harris, is now at Rutgers.

Syracuse has several returning wide receivers from last year’s team, including Courtney Jackson, Devaughn Cooper, Anthony Queeley and Damien Alford. They also added Michigan State transfer CJ Hayes through the portal.

Other talented underclassmen, Oronde Gadsden II, Trebor Pena and Umari Hatcher also figure into the mix as well.

It would be wise to keep a keen eye on which receiver(s) can separate themselves from the group and become a reliable target for Shrader.

How will SU use its tight ends?

Former OC Sterlin Gilbert rarely used his tight ends during his tenure at Syracuse. Luke Benson caught five passes, and Maximilian Mang caught one.

That is the entire pass catching production from 2021.

Things figure to change under new offensive coordinator Robert Anae. In 2021 when Anae was at Virginia, he dialed up tight end Jelani Woods frequently, as Woods finished with 44 receptions, 598 yards and eight touchdowns.

Look for SU to utilize this group in the spring game.

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About Wes Cheng 2786 Articles
Wes has worked for Rivals.com covering the New York Knicks, as well as for Scout.com covering Syracuse athletics. Wes has also been a contributing writer for the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), for SportsNet New York (SNY) as a news desk writer covering all of New York professional sports, and reported on the NBA and MLB for the New York Sportscene. A native of Long Island, New York, Wes graduated from Syracuse University in 2005 with a degree in journalism. Contact him at wes[at]sujuiceonline.com.