The weak spot last year for the Orangemen was its defense after allowing a conference high 406 points, while only holding Rutgers, Temple and Division 1-AA Rhode Island below 30 points. As with the Tar Heels, Syracuse returns several defensive starters with another year of experience, but whether or not that is good news remains to be seen. Saturday's 1:30 p.m. game at Kenan Stadium is the season opener for the Orangemen.
R.J. Anderson (6-1, 233, Sr.) has shared the position since his sophomore season, but with the graduation of Troy Nunes, Anderson enters the 2003 season expecting to be the full-time starter. He completed 58-of-134 passes last season and threw for four touchdowns. Anderson saw action in last season's game with the Tar Heels, completing 4-of-11 passes for 71 yards. He also scored a rushing touchdown in that game. The backup is Xzavier Gaines (6-4, 206, So.), who moved to wide receiver from quarterback prior to the start of 2002 spring practice, but then returned to quarterback for in the fall. Gaines is also a guard on Syracuse's defending national champion basketball team.
Tailbacks' Walter Reyes (5-10, 209, Jr.) and Damien Rhodes (6-1, 210, So.) combined for 1,703 yards last season at the alma mater of the legendary Jim Brown. Reyes carried for 1,135 yards, the fourth-highest total in team history, and broke the school-record for rushing touchdowns in a season with 17. Rhodes led the Orangemen with 1,268 all-purpose yards as a freshman in 2002. In his very first start, he tied Floyd Little's school record for the most rushing yards in a collegiate debut, with 82 yards and two touchdowns. Thump Belton (6-0, 240, Sr.) is the starter at fullback, but Greg Hanoian (6-2, 267, Jr.), who rushed for 3,800 yards and 39 touchdowns in high school, has moved over from the tight end position.
Head coach Paul Pasqualoni returns experience to the wideout position this season. Speedster Jamel Riddle (5-7, 182, Sr.) is the top receiving threat. Riddle averaged 16.9 yards per catch last season with five touchdowns. Johnnie Morant (6-4, 230, Sr.) is a big target that started as a true freshman in 2000. In three or more receiver sets, Jared Jones (5-11, 192, Jr.) will see action. The former quarterback caught a career-best five passes for a team-high 56 yards at Auburn last season, including three passes for 26 yards in Syracuse's game-tying drive in the fourth quarter.
Four of five starters return on the offensive line, including center Nick Romeo, who joins UNC's Jason Brown on this year's Rimington Award watch list – an annual award given to the nation's best center. Romeo has started every game of his college career, and is a big reason for the success the Orangemen have enjoyed running the ball. Also back are tackles' Adam Terry (6-8, 300, Jr.) and Kevin Sampson (6-4, 300, Sr.). The guards are Matt Taurullo (6-5, 313, Jr.) and Jason Greene (6-5, 301, So.), on a unit that averages over 300 pounds per starter.
Lenny Cusumano (6-1, 255, Sr.) is No. 1 on the depth chart, but is primarily used as a blocker, having caught just four passes last season for 36 yards. Joe Donnelly (6-3, 252, Sr.), who started five games, averaged 12.3 yards per reception and scored once.
The defensive front is anchored by veterans with good size and athleticism and have a combined 74 starts between them. Senior Christian Ferrara (6-4, 302, Sr.), Louis Gachelin (6-1, 285, Sr.), Josh Thomas (6-7, 288, Sr.) and sophomore James Wyche (6-5, 242, So.) make up the starting front four. Ferrara made 29 tackles in 2002, including a career-high six at West Virginia, while Thomas recorded 33 stops last season and was second on the team with eight quarterback hurries. Gachelin led Syracuse with 8.5 sacks last year and was a second-team All-Big East selection.
With cornerback Steve Gregory (5-11, 178, So.) as the only returning starter, Pasquoloni had to move Diamond Ferri (5-10, 206, Jr.) from running back to strong safety this year, in hopes of improving a defense that gave up 33.8 points per game last year. The other corner is Thomas Whitfield (5-9, 187, So.), who played in all 12 games last year, but primarily just on special teams. Anthony Smith (6-0, 186, So.) edged out O'Neil Scott (6-0, 198, So.) for the starting free safety position, after Scott was named the Orangemen's most improved defensive player in the spring.
Syracuse led the nation last year in opponent's punt return average, allowing a miniscule 2.5 yards per return. Riddle is a dangerous weapon on special teams finishing third in the Big East and ranked 24th nationally in 2002 with 13.7 yards per return. He had an 85-yard touchdown return versus Auburn. Gregory tied a school record by blocking three kicks in 2002. The Orangemen blocked seven kicks all together last season, tying for the conference lead in that category with Virginia Tech. Junior Colin Barber (6-1, 216, Jr.), who handles the all of the kicking duties, missed ten field goals last season, but did set a personal career mark with a 50-yarder versus Boston College. Brendan Carney (6-5, 201, Fr.*) will make his collegiate punting debut on Saturday.