Syracuse and Florida State battle inside the Carrier Dome on Saturday in what appears to be a mismatch on paper. The two programs are going in opposite directions so far this season. Can the Orange pull off a miraculous upset? Let’s take a look at Syracuse to find out.
Syracuse runs a spread, up-tempo offense with zone-read and power running principles. The quarterback is frequently lined up in the shotgun or pistol, and the Orange use three or more wide receiver formations most of the time.
They throw a lot of short passes, specifically the bubble screen, to try to get their playmakers the ball in space. A mobile quarterback gives them the ability to test defenses with the zone-read. The Orange also keep defenses off balance by pushing the tempo and utilizing a no-huddle approach.
That has been the calling card of the Syracuse offense, but there is a new sheriff in town as Tim Lester is replacing George McDonald as offensive coordinator. Expect to see more traditional power running or spread running that will set up the pass. Syracuse hasn’t utilized play action much in the past, but could do so a lot on Saturday.
Terrel Hunt has been the Syracuse starter since the beginning of last season. However, he suffered a broken fibula against Louisville and is out four to six weeks. Syracuse has been mum on who will replace him, but a multiple quarterback approach is likely.
The two players most likely to see the field are redshirt freshman Austin Wilson and true freshman A.J. Long. Wilson is a traditional pocket passer type. He will not hurt defenses with his legs, but throws a more accurate ball than Hunt. With his inexperience, he has shown the propensity to have happy feet especially against the blitz.
Long is smaller in stature but plays with heart, grit and some backyard football swag. He is a dual threat quarterback in every sense of the term. Long has more big play potential and is better suited to run a spread, zone-read system. Long has good enough arm strength but does not have an elite arm. He has not played a game at the college level so he has a big question mark, but may have the most upside of the three options.
Redshirt freshman Mitch Kimble is also in the mix. He is sort of a combination of Long and Wilson, but closer to Long as he can hurt defenses with his feet. He has the biggest frame of the three at 6-foot-4, but struggles with consistency on his throws.
Syracuse will use a plethora of skill position players both at running back and wide receiver. In the backfield, Prince-Tyson Gulley is the leader of the pack. The senior back is quicker than he is fast but has the most explosiveness of the group. He is also the biggest threat out of the backfield in the passing game. Gulley is at his best between the tackles making quick cuts to get to the open field.
Adonis Ameen-Moore is the power back who will get his share of carries. He has slimmed down from prior years, which has helped his footwork and quickness, but he is still primarily a downhill, power type. Ameen-Moore will not dazzle you with agility or athleticism, but can get tough yards straight ahead.
George Morris and DeVante McFarlane enter their sophomore seasons. Both are balanced running backs who have a nice combination of speed and power. Neither has received a lot of work this season because of all of the options Syracuse has at the position. McFarlane was out with an injury the last two weeks and may not play against the Seminoles either.
Freshman Ervin Philips was thought to be the odd man out but has seen increased playing time over the last three weeks. He is still working on bulking up a bit, but is a shifty player who is a scat-back type. You will also see him line up in the slot on occasion.
Syracuse uses several receivers in their rotation. Adrian Flemming, Jarrod West, Steve Ishmael, Ben Lewis and Quinta Funderburk all play on the outside. Brisly Estime and Ashton Broyld are the slot receivers (or h-backs in the ‘Cuse offense).
Broyld and Estime are battling injures. Broyld was the team’s leading receiver before missing the last two games. Estime aggravated an ankle injury against Notre Dame. Both are questions marks to play in this one. Broyld may be the best playmaker of the receivers. He is big, strong and physical. Estime is the fastest guy on the team but is undersized.
Flemming and West are possession receiver types. Both are upper classmen and have long, lean bodies. Neither is especially fast. Ishmael is a true freshman and may have the most raw talent of the bunch. He is still adjusting to the speed of the college game. He has excellent hands and is an improving route runner. Ishmael has had at least one catch in every game.
Lewis is a strong blocker for the bubble screens that they like the run and is an emerging pass catcher. He does not possess big time speed, however. Lewis has seen more action over the last two weeks with all of the injuries to the receiving corps. He had a bad drop last week, but generally has very good hands.
Funderburk is a former four-star recruit who transferred from Arkansas. He has yet to put it all together at Syracuse and has been largely invisible.
Alvin Cornelius rotates in at times. He also is a strong blocker with good hands. Cornelius lacks elite speed or shiftiness, which keeps him off the field in many situations.
Josh Parris is the starting tight end. He missed the first two games of the season due to injury, but is the most complete player the Orange have at the position. He gives Syracuse a strong blocker and athletic receiving option over the middle. He was finally a factor in the passing game last week, running a short 5-yard option route that puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses. He could be a bigger factor with Lester at the controls of the offense.
Behind him is Kendall Moore, a sophomore who is a skilled blocker. Unfortunately for him, his hands are below average. He suffered a concussion against the Irish two weeks ago and is doubtful to play this week.
Tyler Provo may see some action as well in bigger sets. Like Moore, he is more of a blocking option.
In the Trenches
The Syracuse offensive line is as deep as it has been in years. There have been some early season injuries that have tested that depth. The starting group, when fully healthy, returns four starters from last season’s solid group.
They are led by NFL prospect Sean Hickey at left tackle. He is strong, has excellent footwork and uses his hands very well. Hickey is solid in both pass protection and as a lead run blocker.
The two guards are Rob Trudo and Nick Robinson. Both are skilled run blockers. Robinson is also solid in pass protection while Trudo struggles at times in that area. Robinson has dealt with an injury throughout training camp and saw his first action against Central Michigan.
Omari Palmer provides depth at the guard position. He had a strong spring and training camp until an injury sidelined him for week one. Palmer may see some action as well. Similar to Trudo, he is a better run blocker than pass protector. He is susceptible to both the bull rush by powerful defensive tackles.
Trudo and Palmer have split time at guard. Who starts and receives the most snaps fluctuates game to game.
Rounding out the interior lineman is the lone newcomer to the five man group. Center John Miller takes over for the graduated Macky MacPherson who was a three-year starter. He has not seen significant action prior to this season in about two years. He struggled in week one against Villanova but was better the last two weeks. Miller is sometimes too high out of his stance and loses leverage against strong defensive tackles.
At right tackle, Ivan Foy completes the starting five. Foy is a solid run blocker but struggles with quick pass rushing ends due to slow feet. He has good size for the position and uses his hands well. Foy is battling a knee injury and is also doubtful this week.
Michael Lasker is the primary backup at both tackle positions and provides quality depth. He has struggled with consistency, and as a result, Syracuse started Omari Palmer at right tackle last week. Palmer should get the nod again. He is vulnerable to speedy edge rushers but is solid as a run blocker.
Syracuse runs a base 4-3 defensive system. They are very aggressive within their scheme frequently blitzing their opponent in both run and pass situations. They like to bring pressure any of the linebacker positions and even use a defensive back on occasion. In nickel and dime situations, they utilize a 3-3-5 formation, which they call the “Okie” package.
In the Trenches
The Syracuse defensive line is the biggest question mark on the entire team. They return three starters from a year ago, but lost their most productive defensive lineman (Jay Bromley) to the NFL.
Defensive ends Micah Robinson and Robert Welsh start. Both are solid players who are better against the run than rushing the passer. Neither offers consistent pressure off the edge. Isaiah Johnson and Donnie Simmons also rotate in. Both are better rushing the passer but give up a bit against the run.
In the middle, Eric Crume is the guy to watch. He is a bit shorter than is ideal but is very strong and plays with low pad level. Crume is skilled at filling the gap and plugging up running lanes.
The other tackle spot is done by committee. Ron Thompson has emerged as a contributor and has started the last four weeks. He is undersized for a tackle, but is extremely athletic with a quick first step. Thompson will see time at defensive end as well and may be the team’s best pass rusher.
Ryan Sloan, Marcus Coleman and Wayne Williams will also rotate in at tackle. Williams is the most talented of the group and has been seeing more snaps over the last two weeks. He is a big, physical tackle who eats up blocks and fills gaps well.
The Back Seven
The back seven is the heart and soul of the Syracuse defense. The two outside linebackers, Dyshawn Davis and Cameron Lynch, are skilled blitzers who are extremely athletic and quick. Davis, however, struggles against the run and in coverage. Lynch is the defensive leader who has led Syracuse in tackles in each of the first three games. He has strong instincts and tackles very well.
The man in the middle is Marqez Hodge. Hodge emerged last season as a true freshman and has taken over the starting middle linebacker position this year. He is still a little bit raw, but has good instincts and is a powerful tackler. At times, he takes poor angles, which causes him to miss tackles.
Senior Josh Kirkland, senior Luke Arciniega and true freshmen Zaire Franklin provide depth to the group. Kirkland is an effort backer who plays out of position frequently but makes up for it with his high motor. Franklin is still learning but can play inside or outside. He has ideal size and has strong tackling technique.
Arciniega is an old school middle linebacker who does not possess strong lateral quickness. Instead, he is a downhill type who plays with power.
In the secondary, the Orange are led by safety Durell Eskridge. He has NFL size for the position with speed, athleticism, strength and playmaking ability. He is the most talented defensive player on the roster. His only weakness is inconsistency in coverage.
He finally broke out against Notre Dame with nine tackles, an interception returned for a touchdown and a fumble recover. That performance earned him ACC co-defensive back of the week.
At corner, Julian Whigham and Brandon Reddish get the starting nod. Whigham is a taller corner with long arms and solid closing speed. Reddish is a bit smaller but more agile. Neither is an elite shut down type, but both are solid.
Both Whigham and Reddish have been prone to giving up the big play this season. Especially over the last two weeks, they struggled against the vertical passing game which is a big concern going forward.
Wayne Morgan is normally the nickel corner, but is out this week with a knee injury. Corey Winfield, who transitioned to corner from wide receiver this fall, and true freshman Antwan Cordy provide depth. Winfield has been victimized on the deep post and Cordy has not seen consistent action this year.
Syracuse’s strength on special teams is their punter Riley Dixon. He has a powerful leg and is on the Ray Guy Award watch list. Dixon is also tied for the team lead in touchdown passes and led the Orange in rushing against Notre Dame due to a 42-yard scamper on a fake punt. While he is a skilled punter, you have to keep an eye on him if the Orange get creative.
Kicker Ryan Norton has struggled with accuracy. He has missed three field goals this season already, including two short ones. Freshman walk-on Cole Murphy hit a 49-yarder against Maryland and got the start the last two weeks. He will likely be the guy again this week. He is more reliable and accurate than Norton.
The Orange have two returners who are playmaking threats. Brisly Estime is the punt returner with elite speed and shiftiness. But again, his ankle injury may give way to Ritchy Desir. Desir does not have the same explosiveness, but has good hands and will not make a big mistake. With Estime’s injury concerns, Desir may be the guy returning punts.
Prince-Tyson Gulley got some action returning punts last week and was very successful.
Ervin Philips, a true freshman, returns kickoffs. He has big play ability as well but has not proven it on the college level. He has a tendency to hesitate or dance with the ball which has given Syracuse poor starting field position.
The coverage units have been solid this season, save a punt return touchdown in week one.
Syracuse has injury issues at quarterback and wide receiver in addition to changing their offensive coordinator. As if facing the top ranked team in the country wasn’t a large enough undertaking, these added distractions make it even more daunting. The Orange may hang in if they can run the ball successfully and shorten the game, but Florida State has too big of a talent gap to be seriously tested.