Big East Preview -- Part 4

Here's a look at my preseason preview of the struggling Syracuse Orange. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.

SYRACUSE ORANGEMEN PREVIEW


One could somewhat optimistically note that Syracuse  (6-6, 2-5 Big East) missed consecutive bowl appearances last year for only the second time in 13 years under Head Coach Paul Pasqualoni.  Dissenters would counter that Syracuse has missed bowl games in three of the past four years.  The Orange have won more than seven games only once since 1998 and twice suffered non-winning seasons.  The timing could not be worse as the ACC raid upon the Big East left the conference without its marquee programs – Miami and Virginia Tech.  At a time that the remnants of the Big East must capitalize on the absence of domineering Miami and gain national recognition outside the Hurricane's shadow, Syracuse is in a sustained period of decline.  Once a conference leader, the Orange are now laggards.  Syracuse has seen since-departed Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Boston College pass the fading Orange program.  Syracuse now is now faced with the ignominy of Big East newbie Connecticut and longtime doormat Rutgers nipping at its heels. 

The ongoing debacle at QB illustrates Pasqualoni's problem – an ongoing talent drain.  The emergence of Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Boston College, Rutgers, and Connecticut within the Big East has hurt Syracuse's recruiting.  The talent depletion has forced Pasqualoni, who once religiously redshirted his freshmen and developed them over five years, to force feed his newcomers.  Pasqualoni played five true freshman in 2003 and three more last year to plug yawning holes in his depth chart.  As a result, Syracuse has increasingly become a younger and less experienced team.  Pasqualoni returns 12 starters plus both kickers from another underachieving team that severely lacked depth.  The Big East needs Syracuse to move forward successfully.  Their fans lament their future in the new Big East while resting on past laurels earned during the 90s.  Syracuse must get over itself and deal with reality.  Athletic Director Jake Crouthamel must make a tough decision about the future of the football program and its head coach.  Here's a look at the struggling Syracuse Orangemen. 


OFFENSE

Syracuse lost six starters from yet another one-dimensional and mediocre offense.  Syracuse runs a very complicated multi-formational offense that combines power running, QB option, and passing in a multi-dimensional threat.  However, in recent years, the once potent Orange offense has sputtered as playmakers have not emerged, especially at QB.  And those struggles have coincided with the current five-year decline in which Syracuse finds itself presently mired.  Syracuse's 2003 offensive statistics are summarized below:

  • 189 rushing yards per game (#2 in the current Big East and #26 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 180 passing yards per game (#6 in the Big East and #91 in Division 1A)
  • 370 yards per game (#4 in the Big East and #70 in Division 1A)
  • 27 points per game (#6 in the Big East and #62 in Division 1A)


Syracuse has a legendary running back tradition dating back almost 50 years to Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, and Larry Csonka.  Two-year starter and Second Team All Big East TB RS Sr Walter Reyes (253 carries for 1,347 yards and 20 TD plus 38 receptions for 375 yards) is the latest addition to this tradition.  Jr TB Damien Rhodes (35 carries for 126 yards plus 8 receptions for 77 yards), who missed the final seven games of last season with an ankle injury, will return as Reyes' backup.  Starting FB Thump Belton (35 carries for 168 yards plus 6 receptions for 44 yards) has departed.  Former backup FB RS Sr Greg Hanoian (8 carries for 45 yards) will replace Belton with RS So FB Steven McDonald serving as the backup.  Reyes is a pre-season Heisman Trophy candidate but Rhodes may actually be the better back.  Syracuse will have a potent ground that should take pressure off the unproven QB and depleted receiving corps. 

Syracuse lost two starters – four-year starter and Second Team All-Big East C Nick Romeo as well as two-year starter and 7th round NFL draft choice RT Kevin Sampson – off a veteran OLine who paved the way for the formidable Orange ground attack while simultaneously yielding the fewest sacks in the Big East.  Backup C Chris Buda also departed.  Two-year starters RS Sr LT Adam Terry, who earned Second Team All-Big East honors last season, and RS Sr C Matt Tarullo, who switched from LG,  will anchor the OLine.  Starting RG Jr Steve Franklin also returns and will replace Tarullo as the starting LG.  Former backup RG RS Jr Jason Greene will start in Franklin's former slot while former backup RT Jr Quinn Ojinnaka will replace Sampson.  RS Jr LT Brent Caldwell and RS So C Justin Outten, who was the backup LG last year, return as backups.  JUCO RS Jr RT Kurt Falke, RS Fr LG Marvin McCall, and RS Fr RT Carroll Madison will join the second unit as backups.  The Orange should run predominantly to the left side behind an experienced crew with five years of combined starting experience. 

The QB position has been a mess since Donovan McNabb departed in 1998.  Paqualoni has tried three different QBs without success.  The QB of the future transferred after his redshirt season.  The next highly touted recruit blew out his knee in spring camp of his redshirt season.  It's been a tragicomedy that has no end in sight.  Enigmatic three-year starter QB RJ Anderson (186 of 310 for 2,164 yards, 10 TDs, and 8 INTs plus 99 carries for 262 yards and 5 TDs) departed with no clear heir apparent.  RS So QB Perry Patterson (no pass attempts but 6 carries for 28 yards) was expected to challenge Anderson but missed half the season with an ACL injury suffered during spring camp.  Backup QB RS Jr Xavier Gaines (4 carries for 16 yards) did not attempt a pass last season in Patterson's absence.  True freshman QB Joe Fields, a January enrollee, will also compete for a spot on the depth chart.  Syracuse's misadventures at QB likely will continue for another season without an experienced QB to run the complex Orange offense. 

Productivity problems continued to plague the Syracuse passing game.  The ongoing deficiencies at QB have made the Orange receiving corps look much worse than it is.  Talented receivers mean little without a QB who can get them the ball.  Attrition has further compromised the receiving corps.  Syracuse lost two starters – Second Team All-Big East WR Johnnie Morant (46 receptions for 799 yards and 5 TDs) and two-year starter TE Lenny Cusumano (6 receptions for 60 yards).  Backup TE Joe Donnelly  receptions for 67) also departed and former backup WR Rashard Williams (23 receptions for 240 yards) was academically separated from Syracuse before the spring semester.  RS Sr WR Jared Jones (37 receptions for 355 yards) is the sole returning starter.  Former starting CB RS Jr Steve Gregory was switched to WR in spring camp and will start opposite Jones.  Backup WR RS Sr Andre Fontenette (11 receptions for 68 yards) is the only other experienced receiver.  RS Fr WR Landel Bembo, who was academically ineligible last year, is expected to be the other backup.  RS Jr TE Joe Kowalewski – the better blocker – will likely start and RS Jr TE Alex Shor – the better receiver – will likely split time as the backup.  The switch of Gregory from a secondary that was among the nation's worst only two years ago speaks volumes to the lack of depth and talent at WR.  Pasqualoni needs his first and second year WRs to grow up quickly and contribute immediately. 


DEFENSE

Syracuse lost four starters from a defense that bounced back from a disastrous 2002 season that saw it ranked among the worst in Division IA.  Compounding the offensive problems, the defense has also slipped.  Once stout, the Orange defense has become mediocre.  The Orange defense uses a 4-3 scheme with a NT aligned over the center and the SLB often up on the LOS, occasionally bringing the SS up to linebacker depth as the eight man in the box.  Syracuse's 2003 defensive statistics are summarized below:

  • 138 rushing yards per game (#3 in the current Big East and #42 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 222 passing yards per game (#4 in the Big East and #62 in Division 1A)
  • 360 yards per game (#3 in the Big East and #47 in Division 1A)
  • 25 points per game (#4 in the Big East and #59 in Division 1A)


Syracuse returns intact its entire two-deep in the secondary.  However, RS Jr CB Steve Gregory (54 tackles, 4 TFLs, 2 INTs, and 2 FR) has been moved to WR.  Second leading tackler RS Sr SS Diamond Ferri (120 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, and 2 INTs) and third leading tackler Jr FS Anthony Smith (68 tackles and 5 INTs) will anchor the secondary.  RS Sr FS O'Neil Scott (11 tackles) and RS Sr SS Troy Swittenburg (40 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, and 2 INTs), who was a backup CB last year, will backup Smith and Ferri.  RS Jr CB Thomas Whitfield (43 tackles and 3.5 TFLs), who started four games last season, will resume a starting role while former backup CB So Tanard Jackson (5 tackles) will likely replace Gregory.  RS So CB Terrell Lemon (12 tackles) and Jr CB DeAndre LaCaille will backup Whitfield and Gregory.  Lack of experience at CB threatens to compromise a secondary that was among the nation's worst two years ago.

Syracuse lost three-year starter, Second Team All-Big East, and leading tackler MLB Rich Scanlon (147 tackles, 9 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks).  Former two-year starter SLB Jameel Dumas (5 tackles), who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the season opener, is also gone.  Former starting WLB RS Jr Kellen Pruitt (96 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 3 INTs, and 3 FR) will replace Scanlon at MLB.  RS So MLB Jerry Mackey will backup Scanlon.  RS So SLB Kelvin Smith (68 tackles and 6 TFLs), who replaced Dumas last season,  returns as the starter; former backup DE RS Jr Tommy Harris, who was switched to SLB in spring camp, will be the backup.  RS So WLB Luke Cain will replace Pruitt as the starting WLB while true freshman Jake Flaherty will serve as the backup.  The LB corps was razor thin last season and, as a result, is still lacks experience and depth. 

Syracuse lost three starters off a DLine that anchored its defense – three-year starter, Second Team All-Big East, and 7th round NFL draft choice DT Christian Ferrara (62 tackles, 16.5 TFLs, and 3 sacks); two-year starter and two-time All-Big East (First Team last year) DT Louis Gachelin (61 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, and 5.5 sacks); and three-year starter DE Josh Thomas (40 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, and 3 sacks).  DE RS Jr James Wyche (37 tackles, 4 TFLs, and 2 sacks) is the only returning starter.  RS Jr DE Ryan LaCasse (15 tackles) returns as Wyche's backup.  Former backup DE Sr Julian Pollard (23 tackles) will replace Thomas with RS Fr Cornelius Campbell as his backup.  Former backup NT Jr Kader Drame (11 tackles) will replace Gachelin as the starting DT; RS So DT Shadeed Harris or RS So DT Chris Thorner, a converted OG, will backup Drame.  RS Jr NT Eugene Brown will replace Ferrara; RS Fr NT Tony Jenkins or Thorner will backup Brown.  While the Orange have adequate depth at DE to make good their losses, the interior of the DLine will be very inexperienced. 


SPECIAL TEAMS

Syracuse returns intact its specialists, augmented with the return of a former starter.  Second Team All-Big East RS So P Brendan Carney (43 yards per punt) and Second Team All-Big East RS Sr PK Collin Barber (12 of 16 FGAs and 33 of 34 XPAs) will likely give Syracuse the best kicking game in the Big East.  So PR Marcus Clayton (10 yards per return and one TD) returns.  Although RS Jr KOR Steve Gregory (19 yards per return) split kickoff return responsibilities with the departed Johnny Morant (22 yards per return) last year, a now healthy Jr TB Damien Rhodes will likely handle KOR duties this year.  Pasqualoni will need a big year from his special teams to compliment the ground-based offense. 


SCHEDULE

Syracuse has an 11 game schedule with only five home games.  The Orange open the season with a Sunday date at Purdue.  Syracuse also plays once on Thursday night, at West Virginia.  Syracuse has two bye weeks – in mid October before their Thursday night game and again in mid November.  Once again, Syracuse has a murderous non-conference schedule featuring Cincinnati, Florida State, Purdue, and Virginia.  The Big East schedule is favorable for a team attempting to rebound.  The upper division opponents (Boston College and West Virginia), who are likely beyond Syracuse's reach, are road games while the lower division opponents (Connecticut, Pittsburgh, and Rutgers), who Syracuse must sweep to qualify for a bowl game, are primarily home games.  The home schedule is formidable, without a single opponent not capable of winning at the Carrier Dome.  A 4-2 home record is essential to a winning season.  The road schedule only offers two realistic opportunities for victories – at Buffalo and at Temple.  Games at Purdue, Virginia, West Virginia, and Boston College are likely losses.  The key game is the November 6th visit from Pittsburgh.  Without a victory, Syracuse likely will not achieve the requisite six wins for bowl eligibility. 

 

September 5

@ Purdue

September 11

@ Buffalo

September 18

Cincinnati

September 25

@ Virginia

October 2

Rutgers

October 9

Florida State

October 21

@ West Virginia

October 30

Connecticut

November 6

Pittsburgh

November 13

@ Temple

November 27

@ Boston College

 


PREDICTION

I predict Syracuse will finish the season with a 5-6 (3-3) record.  Syracuse will lose convincingly to Purdue, Virginia, Florida State, and West Virginia.  After struggling offensively for a few seasons, Purdue will again be an offensive juggernaut behind an NFL-caliber QB.  The Boilermakers have way too much offensive firepower for Syracuse.  As do Virginia and Florida State, who also possess very good defenses.  West Virginia lacks the offensive arsenal of these three teams but has a decided edge over the Orange in talent, depth, and the home field advantage.  The Orange rushing attack will ground the formidable Cincinnati passing game and carry to Syracuse to victory in the first of four crucial home games.  The Orange will capitalize on Rutgers mistakes to win a tight game in the Dome.  Much as Boston College did last year, Syracuse will physically overpower Connecticut and use their running game to keep the ball away from the Huskies.  Pittsburgh will make enough big plays to beat Syracuse in another close game at the Dome.  The loss will jeopardize the Orange's bowl prospects, which will be eliminate with a season-ending loss at Boston College.  Crouthamel will fire Pasqualoni the next day and Syracuse will begin looking for its next head coach. 


Coming Next:  Big East Preview, Part 5.  I'll continue my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at newbie Connecticut, who is playing their first season of Big East football.  I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits. 


Please send any comments to dwelch11@comcast.net.  I welcome and appreciate your feedback.  And please put "Rutgers" in the message header because I wouldn't want to miss your email in a sea of spam.  In the meantime, if you would like to discuss the spring camp with other Rutgers fans, please visit our message board.


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