2017 Record: 4-8 (2-6, ACC Atlantic)
2017 Review: To say Syracuse was up and down on this side of the ball would be an understatement. Even if they didn’t score a lot of points, the offense showed promise in games against heavyweights such as LSU and Clemson, but they also struggled mightily at times. A lack of balance and an overreliance on certain players led the offense to become too predictable down the stretch. What did not change, though, was the tempo. Syracuse snapped the ball every 21.1 seconds, the fastest rate in FBS and don’t expect that to change in 2018.
Scheme: Head coach Dino Babers comes from the Baylor coaching tree, although his offense skews more toward the Air Raid style than Baylor’s version of the spread, which emphasized power running and deep shots. Babers is much more willing to dink and dunk down the field and his offenses have not been as committed to running the ball. They improved last year, but still finished just 9th in the ACC in rushing.
Quarterbacks: Some guys are perfect fits for a certain style of offense and senior Eric Dungey is a perfect fit for Babers’ system, which relies on a smart, athletic QB with toughness. Dungey (2495 yards, 60%, 14 TDs, 9 INTs, 787 yds rushing [sacks removed], 9 TDs) was recruited by the old regime, but he has really blossomed under Babers. The only problem is, Dungey has yet to finish a season uninjured. Last year, he was limited to 9 games, and he sat out portions of several others. When he is on, he is among the best in the ACC.
Dungey is a gunslinger who will throw himself around and, so, I don’t think Syracuse can plan on him playing the whole season. In fact, credit to Bill Connelly for pointing out that Dungey has never played in a game after November 7 in his career. In redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito, the coaches have a guy who provides legitimate competition for Dungey. A 4* recruit, DeVito is probably the most accurate passer on the roster and he was very sharp in the spring. He’s the future of the program. Sophomore Rex Culpepper saw action last year due to Dungey’s injuries, but he’ll have a hard time getting past DeVito.
Running Backs: The good news is Syracuse returns all three of its top rushers from last year. The bad news is none of them were efficient or explosive and so there are not super high hopes for this group. Senior Dontae Strickland (482 yds, 3.8 avg, 4 TDs, 18 receptions, 2 TDs) is experienced and has good hands, but he won’t produce many big plays. Junior Moe Neal (488 yds, 5.3 avg, TD, 12 recs, TD) is the potential home run threat. He just needs to be more consistent. Sophomore Markenzy Pierre only saw 25 carries last year, but the Florida native probably has the best size-speed combo of the group. This unit is likely not going to make a lot of splashy plays, but if they could be more efficient, it would make a world of difference for an offense that becomes too reliant on Dungey’s running ability.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: The Orange have a decent mix of experienced upperclassmen and talented youth here, but replacing Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips will not be easy. The duo combined for 194 catches and were targeted way, way, way more often than any of the returnees. Still, the coaches think they have some decent building blocks, beginning with junior Devin Butler. Butler (33 recs, 327 yds, TD) finished third in both receptions and receiving yards last year and he has the size (6-3, 194), hands, and experience to be a bonafide number one.
From there? Senior Jamal Custis and junior Sean Riley have lots of experience, but each caught just eight passes last year, many of which came against weaker opponents. Sophomore Nykeim Johnson got his feet wet last year, also catching eight passes, and he’s expected to hold down a starting job in the slot. Depth is full of unknowns. Redshirt freshmen Cameron Jordan, Russell Thompson-Bishop, and Sharod Johnson are all currently listed as backups, but could easily push for starts. Sophomore walk-on K.K. Hahn had a big spring and might get a look. True freshman Ed Hendrix was a high 3* recruit who many expect to see snaps this year.
One known quantity in this unit is senior tight end Ravian Pierce, a solid receiver and difficult matchup at 6-3, 245. Pierce (29 recs, 263 yds, 4 TDs) will likely be the most reliable pass catcher on the roster and should see his numbers go way up. Sophomore Aaron Hackett and true freshman Gabe Horan are the only other tight ends on the roster and I would be surprised to see Pierce leave the field much.
Offensive Line: This unit has been decidedly average or below average in terms of run blocking, but they have been pretty solid in pass blocking. Seven different players who have seen snaps return and the Orange added a graduate transfer to boot. This should be the best line Babers has had at Syracuse.
Three guys seem like for-sure starters. Junior RG Evan Adams has started the last 21 games and is extremely solid. Senior LT Cody Conway has 18 career starts and is a very good pass protector. Sophomore C Airon Servais started all 12 games last year and has a bright future. He’s versatile enough that he played tackle in the spring, but the coaches think his long term future is at the pivot. The battles are at LG and RT. At LG, senior Aaron Roberts has the inside track. He started 12 games in 2016, but missed all of last year. In his place, sophomore Sam Heckel, one of the highest rated recruits of the position group, started 12 times. The two battled in spring and they are currently still battling it out to see who starts in the opener, but it seems like either could get the job done. If Heckel loses out, he’ll be a top backup at both guard and center. At RT, senior Koda Martin, a grad transfer from Texas A&M, is leading sophomore Mike Clark for that spot. Martin started 16 games over two years at A&M and has prototypical size and athleticism.
2017 Review: Syracuse was maddeningly inconsistent on this side of the ball. For a three-game stretch against Clemson, Miami, and FSU, they were very good on defense, but then they ended the year giving up 162 points in the last three games. The Orange finished 98th or worse in all major defensive statistical categories. They were poor against the run and pass.
Scheme: Due to how poor the Orange were against everything, coordinator Brian Ward, who came with Babers from Bowling Green, has switched to an attacking 4-2-5 defense. There are some spots where Syracuse looks like they may improve on defense, but an overall lack of depth and talent is going to test this unit again.
Defensive Line: One spot that looks like it might really improve is this group. The Orange were not good against the run last year and did not create a lot of sacks either, but there are eight guys here who seem like legitimate high-level college football players.
The star of the unit is likely to be senior Chris Clayton, a seriously strong guy with 29 career starts to his name. Clayton (28 tackles, 8.5 for loss) is a workout warrior who also produces on game day. He has NFL ability. Junior McKinley Williams (25 tackles, 4 for loss) is not as big or strong as Clayton, but he proved a steady presence last season as a part-time starter. Depth is good here too, with junior Kenneth Ruff and sophomore Josh Black solid backup options. Black only appeared in 4 games last year, but he really flashed in those appearances, with 8 tackles and 3 for loss. Sophomore Chris Elmore has bounced between offense and defense, but it appears he has switched to defensive tackle full-time and has shot up the depth chart.
Depth is not as good at end, but the Orange still have a nice group here. Starters Alton Robinson (30 tackles, 6 for loss, 5 sacks) and Kendall Coleman (28 tackles, 2.5 for loss), both juniors, have a lot of experience and potential. Robinson looks the part as a pass rusher while Coleman is a solid edge setter. Junior Brandon Berry (28 tackles) started 6 games last year and sophomore Kingsley Jonathan is the highest rated recruit of the unit. None of the quartet are special talents, but they could combine to form a solid unit.
Linebackers: The biggest question mark on the defense is here. Last year, Syracuse ran a 4-3 and all three of the linebacker starters are gone, including Paris Bennett, who was a one-man wrecking crew at times last year, and three-time captain Zaire Franklin. I suspect part of the shift to the 4-2-5 is to hide some of the deficiencies and lack of depth of this unit.
Based on the depth chart Syracuse released for ACC Media Days last week, the current projected starters are seniors Kielan Whitner and Ryan Guthrie. Whitner is a tad undersized at 6-0, 215 and he has not played much. He has the athleticism and speed to excel on the weakside, but he’ll be a work in progress given his lack of experience. Guthrie (11 tackles, 1.5 sacks) got some meaningful playing time last year after transferring in from the JC ranks and has decent size to boot. He’s expected to be the leader of the unit. Depth is anyone’s guess at this point. Junior Andrew Armstrong (13 tackles) has the most playing experience of the backups and he’s currently listed behind Guthrie at MLB. Junior Shyheim Cullen is currently the backup to Whitner, but don’t be surprised if JC transfer Lakiem Williams, redshirt freshman Tyrell Richards, and true freshmen Tre Allison and Juan Wallace are all given a shot.
Secondary: The secondary appears to be a mixed bag. They’ve got some nice experience and talent at corner, but the safety spots are a definite question mark.
The secondary was shaky last year and hope for improvement will rest squarely on four guys. Juniors Christopher Frederick (43 tackles, 2 for loss, 4 pass breakups, INT) and Scoop Bradshaw (21 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 6 PBUs) were not exactly lockdown guys last year, but they are physical, experienced, and could be at least solid corners, given help from the pass rush. Sophomore Evan Foster (64 tackles, 1.5 for loss, 4 PBUs, INT) started all 12 games at SS as a freshman last year and should only get better. Senior Antwan Cordy has been limited by injuries the past two years. He was really good in 2015 and is currently listed as the starting nickel back. If he comes back even half as good as he was in 2015, that could make a big difference to the defense.
From there? True freshman Andre Cisco has emerged as the likely starter at FS. He has promise, showing good athleticism and football IQ, but he’s obviously never played a down of college football. Converted RB Allen Stritzinger is expected to provide depth at safety and NB. Freshmen will likely be relied upon to provide depth at corner. An injury to the starters could be catastrophic.
Special Teams: Junior Sterling Hofrichter is expected to handle both the punting and placekicking after being the starting punter the past two years. He averaged 43.2 yards per punt last year and did hit on 2 of 3 field goal attempts. Sean Riley has been the primary return man for the past two years and he has been steady, if unspectacular. The coverage units have been very solid.
Schedule: Other than a neutral site showdown with Notre Dame, the non-conference schedule (at Western Michigan, Wagner, UConn) is manageable. The ACC slate is fairly difficult. FSU, Louisville, and NC State come to Syracuse, but road dates with Clemson, Pitt, Wake, and BC could end up going a long way to determining bowl eligibility.
Overall: This is probably the best team Babers has fielded in his time at Syracuse, but it still seems like it will be a struggle to get to 6 wins and bowl eligibility. Nearly all preseason prognosticators have tabbed Syracuse as the likely last place team in the Atlantic. The Orange do have talent and experience at QB, along both lines, and somewhat in the secondary. But, they have glaring holes at WR and LB and they lack difference makers all over the place. If Dungey stays healthy, that would go a long way to making this team more dangerous, but, at this point, it seems foolish to bank on that. The defense has fallen apart each of the past two years down the stretch and the schedule is back loaded so that is foreboding to say the least. I like Babers and I think his idea of zigging by running an Air Raid-type offense in the ACC while everyone else is zagging makes sense. And you’ve seen some results, as Syracuse upset Virginia Tech in 2016 and Clemson last year. However, my gut tells me Syracuse is going to struggle to get more than 4 or 5 wins. Babers is doing his best and the players and community seem to respond to him, but Syracuse is a hard school to recruit to and the Atlantic is loaded. If Syracuse gets to 6 wins and a bowl, Babers is likely looking at a contract extension. If not? He might be atop coaching “hot seat” lists in the offseason.