Sunday, August 24, 2014

2014 season preview: Syracuse Orange


8/29: Villanova (Fri.)
9/6: BYE
9/13: @ Central Michigan
9/20: Maryland
9/27: Notre Dame
10/3: Louisville (Fri.)
10/11: Florida State
10/18: @ Wake Forest
10/25: @ Clemson
11/1: NC State
11/8: Duke
11/15: BYE
11/22: @ Pittsburgh
11/29: @ Boston College

Skip: Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech

2013 results:

Penn State: L, 23-17
Northwestern: L, 48-27
Wagner: W, 54-0
Tulane: W, 52-17
Clemson: L, 49-14
NC State: W, 24-10
Georgia Tech: L, 56-0
Wake Forest: W, 13-0
Maryland: W, 20-3
Florida State: L, 59-3
Pittsburgh: L, 17-16
Boston College: W, 34-31
Minnesota: W, 21-17 (Texas Bowl)

Record: 7-6 (4-4); 3rd, Atlantic

Projected starters:

QB: Terrel Hunt (rJr.)
RB: Prince-Tyson Gulley (5Sr.)
WR: Ashton Broyld (Jr.)
WR: Jarrod West (5Sr.)
WR: Brisly Estime (So.)
TE: Josh Parris (rSo.)
LT: Sean Hickey (5Sr.)
LG: Rob Trudo (rJr.)
C: John Miller (Sr.)
RG: Nick Robinson (rJr.)
RT: Ivan Foy (rJr.)

DE: Robert Welsh (5Sr.)
DT: Marcus Coleman (rSo.)
NT: Eric Crume (Sr.)
DE: Micah Robinson (5Sr.)
OLB: Dyshawn Davis (Sr.)
MLB: Marquez Hodge (So.)
OLB: Cameron Lynch (Sr.)
CB: Brandon Reddish (Sr.)
CB: Julian Whigham (Jr.)
SS: Darius Kelly (Sr.)
FS: Durell Eskridge (rJr.)

K: Ryan Norton (Jr.)
P: Riley Dixon (rJr.)

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Coach: Scott Shafer (2nd season)

Media prediction: 4th, Atlantic


2013 1st team: none
2013 2nd team: C Macky MacPherson
2013 3rd team: RB Jerome Smith, DT Jay Bromley, S Durell Eskridge
2013 HM: OT Sean Hickey, LB Marquis Spruill
2014 preseason: OT Sean Hickey

Even though it's been over five years since he coached the team, one gets the impression Syracuse fans are still happy just to be out of the shadow of the incompetent Greg Robinson.  Scott Shafer continued the work done by Doug Marrone to return the Cuse program to respectability, earning a bowl bid in the final game of last season and then pulling out a postseason win.  The fourth-place prediction from the media isn't necessarily a slap in the face considering the competition in the Atlantic, but the Orange will be looking for opportunities to take a step forward in the ACC hierarchy.

-- Offense

Terrel Hunt began last season as the second-string quarterback, but Drew Allen's penchant for interceptions moved Hunt into the starting role after a few games, and he didn't let it go.  Hunt wasn't awesome, but he was at least efficient, and he's also a pretty big running threat.  He hasn't struck much fear in anyone as a passer just yet, but a season of starting, and an offseason as the unquestioned starter, should give Hunt the tools he needs to take a few steps forward.

At running back, Prince-Tyson Gulley settled back into a clear second-option role last season after a 2012 season that had him looking like he'd at least split carries evenly going forward.  Gulley did average 5.5 yards a carry, but couldn't assert himself on the depth chart much.  This year he's the veteran option, and should at least get back over 100 carries for the season and get out of the 450-yard doldrums, but he'll also be pushed by George Morris, who occasionally gives Cuse fans a case of Keith Payne-itis.

Likewise, the receivers have had a tough time living up to the potential often ascribed to them.  Ashton Broyld has a fair amount of speed, but tends to be used more as a bubble screen or slot guy, while Jarrod West is more of the downfield threat.  Hunt doesn't always have the long-range accuracy needed to use West to full advantage, though.  Waterbug slot guy Brisly Estime had a fairly impressive freshman season in 2013, and has potential to be Syracuse's breakout star this year.

The offensive line conversation starts with its anchor, left tackle Sean Hickey.  Hickey is the Orange's lone representative on the preseason all-ACC team, and is a legit NFL prospect.  The other side should be manned by Ivan Foy, as long as he reclaims his starting spot after missing spring practice to focus on academics.  Foy started all 13 games in 2013 and a handful in 2012 and is by far the most experienced option for that spot.

Syracuse had planned to hand the center job to starting guard Rob Trudo, who had started 22 games over the past two years at left guard.  Trudo had also worked at center in his spare time, but he entered spring practice as the starter at center and left it back at left guard again; the reason was the emergence of juco transfer John Miller, who played only sparingly last season but enters this year as the starter in the middle.  Nick Robinson should easily keep his job as the starting right guard, but will have to get healthy first, as he's been ruled out of the season opener.  This leaves an opening for Omari Palmer, who played some in the rotation last year and was set to be the starting LG until Miller changed the coaches' minds.  Trudo may move to the right with Palmer on the left, until Robinson returns.

With Hickey protecting Hunt's blind side, and a reasonable amount of experience elsewhere, Syracuse's line should be at least adequate, if not a strength.  Every skill position, though, is a story of potential not yet realized.  If Hunt develops into a true dual-threat - and for that, his arm is what needs to improve - and if one of his receivers can become a go-to player, Syracuse should be able to move the ball with ease.  There's a fair amount of development to be done to get there, though.  I wouldn't bet against them, but a wait-and-see approach is the way to go here.

-- Defense

As everyone knows, it's usually a bad sign when your free safety leads the team in tackles, but Syracuse is an exception to that rule thanks to the skills of Durell Eskridge.  Eskridge "only" had 78 tackles, a low number to lead a team with, and Cuse's defense was respectable last year, though prone to being demolished at times.  Eskridge also intercepted four passes, another team lead for 2013.

Syracuse is otherwise a bit thin at safety.  Senior strong safeties Ritchy Desir and Darius Kelly have never been able to separate from one another or grab a starting role, which you can read as either having two pretty experienced options at the position, or having two flawed choices.  Kelly should be the starter, or at least, the primary option at strong safety and be backed up by Desir, but behind Eskridge, freshmen abound on the depth chart.

At cornerback, Brandon Reddish is the experienced returning starter, but though he's a senior he's only ever picked off one pass, and none last year when he was a full-time starter.  Julian Whigham joins Reddish in the starting lineup this year, after a year as a nickel corner in which he picked off three passes.  Whigham is a gambler, which boosts the turnover numbers but also sometimes forces Eskridge to make plays that he shouldn't have to.

Syracuse also gets good pass defense from their outside linebackers.  Dyshawn Davis had a great 2012 in that regard, but took a step back last year while dealing with a few nagging injuries (an ankle slowed him down); nevertheless, expectations are pretty high again this year for him to return to 2012 form.  Meantime, Cameron Lynch picked up the slack last year with four sacks, four PBUs, and two picks, proving himself a versatile defender in the passing game.  Lynch also had an impressive 12 TFLs and was second on the team in tackles overall.  In the middle, Marquez Hodge was a productive backup last year with 23 tackles in just eight games, and the dropoff from the solid but departed Marquis Spruill should be minimized.

The Orange feature a pair of senior defensive ends in Robert Welsh and Micah Robinson, with Welsh being the better playmaker of the two by far.  Listed as the third DE, Ron Thompson looked like a natural at the position last year after a switch from tight end, and he'll feature heavily in this year's rotation.  The middle remains somewhat unsettled, though.  Syracuse had an underrated playmaker at DT last year in Jay Bromley, so nose tackle Eric Crume will have to deal with a great deal more attention this year as Marcus Coleman gets used to a massive uptick in playing time.  The Orange have hopes for 330-pound juco transfer NT Wayne Williams, if he ever learns to do the work to harness the potential residing in his huge frame.

Syracuse lost some pretty big playmakers to graduation, and it'll be a bit of a challenge to replace them.  The best bet for that is at outside linebacker, plus Eskridge, and that the veteran defensive ends can boost their production somewhat and be at least a stabilizing force on the line.  There's talent, but nobody here will blow you away.  This defense was smack in the middle of the ACC rankings last year, and shouldn't move too far from that spot this season.

-- Special teams

The kicking battle was decided early in camp when Ross Krautman decided to hang up the cleats after dealing with a chronic hip injury, leaving the job to last year's mercurial starter, Ryan Norton.  Norton wasn't particularly impressive last year, and has been in the behavior doghouse lately, so his grasp on the job is tenuous.  Riley Dixon is a solid punter whose first year on the job in 2013 produced a 42-yard average.

-- Outlook

Syracuse doesn't have a lot of big-name players, guys who keep opposing coordinators awake at night.  But the impression you get here is a team with a high floor to go along with their low-ish ceiling.  I like this team's chances to stay out of the cellar and be a tough out on most schedules; I doubt very much they can climb much higher than third in the division at the most, and that would require an upset or two.  The challenge is the schedule.  They get Notre Dame in the OOC, and of course have to deal with FSU and Clemson as well.  There aren't many easy games on the slate, the majority of which is filled with similarly-talented teams like Maryland and Boston College.  They'll probably have to win more of them than they lose in order to reach bowl eligibility, and will likely need the bowl game to reach eight wins; that said, it'd be a biggish upset to see them drop below five.

No comments: