Preview: Syracuse

As bad as the Notre Dame football team was last year, Syracuse University was even worse. Both teams scored 155 points in 12 games (16.4 average) to tie for 116th in the country. The Orange outperformed the Irish in the passing game, averaging 229.2 yards per game (55th nationally) versus Notre Dame's 167.0 average (110th in the country) and in total yards 291.9 (114th) to 242.3 (119th).

But, by just about every other measure, Syracuse was worse than the Irish.

The Orange finished the 2007 season with a 2-10 record and had they not pulled off what at the time was a huge upset over Louisville, Syracuse's lone win would have come against perennial doormat Buffalo. Of all of the hot seats in the country, Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson's may be the hottest and that was before potentially losing his best player.

The belief around town is that Robinson needs at least five wins to keep his job and when you take quick glance down the schedule, five wins just don't jump out. Take a longer look at the slate and it's clear that if the Orange don't beat Akron on Sept. 6, there might not be any victories outside of a Sept. 20 matchup against FCS Northeastern.

Robinson does return starting junior quarterback Andrew Robinson and a couple of offensive lineman, but it looks like the team will be without junior big-play receiver Mike Williams, who left school after spring.

Williams (6-2, 204) was one of the very few bright spots for Syracuse last year, catching 60 balls for 837 yards and 10 touchdowns. There is some debate about whether he was suspended or expelled, but what is clear is that Williams was not allowed to enroll in school after allegations pertaining to academics. Williams has said that the situation has been resolved and that he will be back, but the school has denied that. If Williams is eligible to play, he will give the Orange a legitimate downfield threat and could be their most dynamic offensive force.

If he is not available, the Orange will turn to junior Lavar Lobdell (6-3, 200) and sophomore Donte Davis (6-0, 169). Lobdell had eight catches for 86 yards as a sophomore. Davis took a medical redshirt in 2007 after suffering a hand injury, but did make nine catches for 84 yards as a true freshman in 2006. Losing Williams also makes depth an issue situation at the position. Expect sophomore Dan Sheeran (6-3, 217) and incoming freshman Marcus Sales (6-0, 180) to see some time. Sheeran made four catches for 24 yards in 2007 after redshirting in 2006.

Robinson (6-3, 222) was 154 of 292 (52.7%) for 2,192 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Robinson threw for 423 yards and four touchdowns in the win over Louisville and passed for 419 yards and three scores in a 52-31 season finale loss to Cincinnati. Robinson has been named the starter, but some close to the program believe that senior Cameron Dantley (6-1, 218) could get a shot before the season ends.

Dantley, who is the son of former Notre Dame basketball great Adrian Dantley, walked on to the Syracuse team in 2005 before earning a scholarship for the 2007 season. Dantley made his first career start for the injured Robinson against South Florida and completed 21 of 38 passes for 276 yards.

Neither quarterback is going to be consistent unless the line plays better and nobody knows that better than Notre Dame fans. In 2007, Syracuse's offensive line allowed 54 sacks and averaged just 62.8 rushing yards (118th nationally).

Robinson brought in offensive coordinator Mitch Browning from Minnesota to revamp the offense.

"Mitch's trademark is a dominant offense with an effective running game and an efficient throwing game to create a balanced attack," Robinson said. "He directs offenses that advance the ball downfield and score points. He creates a balanced attack."

Browning's offenses at Minnesota did rush and pass for over 2,000 yards in each of the last eight years, but he will need to work some magic at Syracuse. The Orange return three full-time starters on the offensive line, but there is little reason to expect dramatic improvements.

Fifth-year senior Ryan Durand (6-5, 310) will be a three-year starter at right guard and sophomore center Jim McKenzie (6-4, 280) started 10 games as a redshirt freshman last year. Senior Corey Chavers (6-5, 295) was moved from left tackle, where he started 10 games last year, to right tackle for the spring. Sophomore Jonathan Meldrum (6-5, 327) played in nine games as a true freshman last year and will back up Chavers.

Redshirt sophomores Tucker Baumbach (6-5, 322) and Ryan Bartholemew (6-3, 290) are listed as starters at left tackle and left guard respectively. Baumbach played in 10 games last year while Bartholemew played in just two.

Junior Mike Owen (6-4, 255) will start at tight end after being moved there from defensive end for the 2007 season. Owen started three games and made five catches for 51 yards last year.

Running back is a position where the Orange have high hopes and need at least one impact player to emerge. Junior Delone Carter (5-10, 214) rushed for 713 yards and four touchdowns on 156 carries and was named a Freshman All-American by The Sporting News in 2006, but he missed all of last year after dislocating his hip in spring practice. Carter has high-end speed and is the probable starter.

Senior Curtis Brinkley (5-9, 203) started the first eight games of last year in Carter's place, leading the team in rushing with 371 yards on 111 carries. Brinkley also had his season cut short after suffering a broken leg against Buffalo.

Doug Hogue (6-2, 215) filled in with mixed results as a freshman in Brinkley's absence. Hogue carried the ball 24 times for 83 yards and a score in the game against Buffalo, but had just 107 yards on 39 carries in the final four games. Scout's 12th-ranked back in the Class of 2008, freshman Averin Collier, (5-10, 200) will provide a young option for Browning and Robinson.

Senior fullback Tony Fiammetta (6-1, 235) is back after starting eight games last year and could be backed up by incoming freshman Carl Cutler (6-4, 234).

Offensively, the keys for the Orange aren't all that different from those of the Irish, but the talent level is. More than anything Syracuse needs to have its offensive line make tremendous strides in order to give its skill players a chance to shine. If, and it's a big if, the line can give Robinson some time then the onus will be on him to make the offense run, but it will be tough if he doesn't get Williams back.

With all of the questions surrounding the offense, the Orange could have just as many on defense. The Orange ranked in the bottom 20 in passing defense (260.9 yards, 102nd nationally), scoring defense (34.8, 104th), rushing defense (207.8, 108th) and total defense (468.8, 111th).

Robinson's defensive background will be on the line even more this year as he has added the title of co-defensive coordinator along with Derrick Jackson.

The best player on the defense is probably junior defensive tackle Arthur Jones (6-4, 289), who was second in the Big East with 17.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and was a Second Team All-Big East selection. Jones and sophomore tackle Bud Tribbey (6-0, 280), who played in every game as a true freshman, represent the most dependable group on the roster. Senior Nick Santiago (6-3, 302) and sophomore Anthony Perkins (6-4, 268) will rotate in with Jones and Tribbey.

The situation at defensive end is not as pretty as junior defensive end Brandon Gilbeaux, who started every game last year and was named to the All-Big East Freshman team in 2006, was also suspended for academic reasons. The decision on Gilbeaux appears to be final, leaving the Orange with sixth-year senior Vincenzo Giruzzi (6-3, 232), who was moved to end from linebacker, redshirt freshman Lamar Middleton (6-2, 230) and sophomore Jared Kimmel (6-6, 252), who had a season-ending injury in the fourth game of 2007.

Senior middle linebacker Jake Flaherty (6-1, 228) is the veteran presence at a position long on talent, but short on experience. Flaherty was second on the team with 95 tackles in 2007 and will be flanked by youngsters on both sides. Sophomore Derrell Smith (6-1, 225) has moved from running back and appears to have beaten out sophomore Parker Canty (6-3, 216) for the SAM position. Redshirt freshman Chad Battles (6-3, 220) could have the most potential of all of the linebackers, but is going to have to compete with sophomore Mike Mele (6-0, 218) for time at WILL. Junior Mike Stenclik (6-0, 225) will be the backup in the middle.

The secondary is perhaps the area of most concern for the Syracuse staff. The only full-time starter back is Mike Holmes (5-11, 185), who had 64 tackles as a true freshman last year. Sophomore Da'Mon Merkenson (6-1, 185) could end up at either corner or safety after being moved from receiver and could very well end up starting opposite of Holmes. Sophomore Nico Scott (5-10, 180) and freshman Kevyn Scott (5-11, 185) – no relation – will play as reserves and in nickel and dime situations.

Seniors Bruce Williams (6-0, 200) and A.J. Brown (6-0, 201) figure to be the starters at the safety spots. Williams, who also returns punts, had 16 tackles in limited action at free safety while Brown started five games at strong safety and recorded 38 tackles. In addition to Merkenson, sophomore Max Suter (5-11, 190) will supply depth at safety. But Suter's biggest contributions should be made as a kick returner where his 1,299 yards as a freshman set an NCAA single-season record.

With young players being asked to play large roles at key positions all over the defense, it's tough to see whether the offense will be able to rely upon the defense or vice versa.

Special teams is the one facet of the game that the Orange seem to have mastered. Along with Suter and Williams, senior Ryan Howard (5-8, 185) could get a shot at returning punts. Sophomore punter Rob Long is back after averaging 41.9 yards per punt and being named a Freshman All-American in 2007. Senior kicker Patrick Shadle was 10 of 14 last year and was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker. Unfortunately for the Orange, they spend much too much time returning kicks and punting and not enough time kicking off and returning punts.

The Notre Dame-Syracuse matchup on Nov. 22 will be the Irish's last home game of the season and last game before the annual collision with USC. If Notre Dame is not a substantial favorite in this game than things have gone horribly wrong.

For the most part the teams in the Big East are comparable at a talent level, unfortunately for Syracuse, they all seem more talented than the Orange. It really is tough to see a way that Robinson keeps his job after this season.


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