Item: There’s nowhere to go but up for Syracuse football after again being the preseason media pick to finish last in the stacked seven team ACC Atlantic Division, following three consecutive losing seasons. The mood is upbeat as preseason workouts get underway Wednesday with new coaches directing a new offensive philosophy (read – passing game) led by quarterback Garett Shrader, a strong defense and likely improved special teams’ units, and of course, a decorated Sean Tucker. The flip side is a tough schedule, questions about establishing the backup QB to Shrader and offensive line cohesiveness, and the timeline for the new faces along the defensive line to become disruptive.
The build up to Dino Babers critical seventh season begins this week with the first of 21 August practices that will take the team up to Louisville game week, and the tough home opener against the Cardinals September 3 (8:00 p.m. ET / ACC Network), the first game played in the building under the name JMA Wireless Dome.
Fine-tuning the schemes, practicing situational football, game and clock management, developing depth, avoiding injuries, and building camaraderie between players and coaches highlight the check list over the next month.
“Where the excitement goes (for me) is looking to see how they can grow the next 30 days before the first game, and then how we can bring it all together as a team. That’s exciting,” Babers said Tuesday at his pre-camp press conference.
“To put the finishing touches on the throwing game. To see where this defense is going to end up,” Babers added. “We keep our offensive line together; we’ll line up and play.”
The ’Cuse is no doubt going to need win the proverbial battle in the trenches in each game to achieve bowl eligibility, a huge challenge with eight of the nine offensive and defensive linemen named to the pre-season All-ACC team on opponents the Orange will face in conference play.
“The two main parts to this season are the hippos (D-line) and the elephants (O-line),” Babers said eliciting a smile. “We haven’t had a stable offensive line since you know when (2018), I’m not going to bring it up. If this is the season where it all works out, we can keep our top seven guys there, let’s go, I’d be really happy with what (is) going to happen.”
“With our D-line, we’re young, but those guys are crazy, and we got a lot of them,” Babers continued. “They’re going to do some wrong things, but they got so much energy that they’re going to fall into some right things, too. That’ll be the key to the season. It always comes down to the O-line and the D-line.”
Obviously, the one player everyone can’t wait to watch is Tucker, running and catching the ball under the play calling of new offensive coordinator Robert Anae. The pre-season All-American is ready to achieve more accolades after setting the school’s single season rushing mark last year, and building his speed and burst by participating on the SU indoor track team over the winter. Both Babers and Tucker himself acknowledge he’s improved in what will likely be his final year in the program.
“I feel I’m definitely better coming into this season,” the always low-key Tucker told the media Tuesday. “Just working hard on my game, working on more of a passing game, catching the ball because our offense is implementing more passing to our running backs. Definitely feel as if I’m better.”
The Syracuse athletic communications staff (led by Tyler Cady) have been leading the charge to provide Tucker his proper due with a conspicuous pre-season Heisman Trophy push, and he’s certainly noticed.
“The campaign seems cool,” Tucker said. “I saw the video and my hashtag (#PL34SED). It’s definitely a good thing, I like it a lot. So hopefully after the season (I) go deep in the (Heisman) race.”
There are six winnable games that Syracuse needs to qualify for a bowl game scattered throughout the schedule. However, with a history of fading down the stretch under Babers (a 5-18 November record in his six seasons) due to injuries and lack of quality depth, SU needs to take advantage of playing five of the first six games in the friendlier confines of the Dome, starting with the Louisville opener just a month away.