Syracuse football Head Coach Doug Marrone may be entering some hot water in the 2012 season should he fall short of a record near .500, and his campaign against speculation and doubt begins on Tuesday as 68 players suit up for the first of 14 practices before the annual Spring game on April 21 at the Carrier Dome.
That number of available players seem low?
Well eight returning players aren't available for the spring session because of injury and one (QB Terrel Hunt) has been suspended for the remainder of the school year for getting into some minor legal trouble earlier in the semester.
With plenty of holes to fill on both sides of the ball, we examine the five biggest storylines that must be examined and figured out by the time the spring game is over.
1. The Back-ups in the Backfield
When scouting most teams; a coach, player, writer or even a fan would likely start at the quarterback position. While we know that senior Ryan Nassib is all but guaranteed the starting job going forward, there are some holes behind him.
Hunt won't be able to help his chances as a backup until fall camp since he was arrested earlier this year for reportedly stealing a bottle of cologne. Charley Loeb is a senior who served as the primary backup last season, while John Kinder is still looking to gauge the offense enough to be considered a competitor against Loeb for backup duties. The wildcard in the mix is freshman Ashton Broyld, who spent last season prepping at Milford Academy as a dual-threat quarterback. The former four-star recruit has the size (6-foot-4, 229 lbs) and speed to make plays as a runner to go along with a strong arm in the passing game.
Broyld will be the quarterback most eyes will be on all spring, to see if he can grasp the system in time to really challenge the upperclassmen by the time the fall rolls around.
Behind the signal-caller, Syracuse has considerable holes to fill. Antwon Bailey, who became the third straight starting back for to run for 1,000 yards in a season as a senior, is preparing for a professional career after graduating in December. Bailey carried the load throughout 2011, tallying 240 of the 312 carries designed for running backs on the year.
Junior Jerome Smith was next in line with just 37 carries and fellow junior Prince-Tyson Gulley, who has recovered from an off-the-field injury that cut his sophomore season short, had just 18 carries though he showed some flashes in September against Toledo with 10 carries for 66 yards in what turned out to be his final game of the season. Big back Adonis Ameen-Moore (upper-body) is among the injured players unavailable in the spring, so inexperienced tailbacks like the speedy Steve Rene and local product Travon Burke will have a shot to step up along with smaller back Greg Tobias.
One back will have to emerge as the primary runner, but don't count out incoming freshman George Morris once he gets into camp in the fall. I expect a running-back-by-committee system in 2012, but the pecking order could be decided in the spring with Smith and Gulley as the early favorites.
At full back, two-way Milford Academy standout and physical specimen Myles Davis (6-foot-2, 232 lbs) will get the initial shot to replace Adam Harris as an every-down player. He was initially recruited as a middle linebacker, but the vacancy at fullback with Harris' career ending early (concussions) and with Carl Cutler (knee) out for the spring, Davis was excited for the opportunity and has told me he's ready to "smash some heads." Clay Cleveland, a junior with special teams experience, is the only other healthy fullback on the roster.
2. Calling any/all Wide Receivers
On the outside of the offense, the Orange looked to have to replace only senior Van Chew from last season initially, but the sudden departure of senior-to-be and speedy option Dorian Graham coupled with a shoulder injury that required surgery to leading receiver Alec Lemon makes the WR position questionable at best.
Syracuse did get some good news in the department, however, when Coach Marrone announced that Marcus Sales was reinstated to the team and will participate in spring practice after his own issues with the legal system though charges against him were eventually dropped. The senior had his best game the last time we all saw him, as he snagged a trio of touchdowns on big plays to help lead Syracuse by Kansas State in the Pinstripe Bowl in December 2010.
Behind Sales, though, again lays some uncertainties and unproven players. Jarrod West is the only returning player who is on the spring roster that can claim more than one reception in 2011. He snagged 16 passes for 151 yards and used his big frame to catch some tough ones in traffic. After West, Jeremiah Kobena was the lone returning player to haul in a pass during a game, and it was just once. This opens the door for young, talented and big wideouts like sophomore Kyle Foster (6-foot-3, 207 lbs), junior Adrian Flemming (6-foot-3, 196 lbs) and Georgia product Keenan Hale (6-foot-2, 185 lbs).
Foster has the inside track to emerge from the group behind West considering he saw minimal playing time in 2011, but Hale may have something to say about that with a year in the system under his belt.
3. Slim Pickings on the Offensive Line
Not only will the spring help Marrone and company determine who will fill the void left by departing seniors Andrew Tiller and Michael Hay, but the depth behind the payers that do step up will be constantly tested in scrimmages before fall camp.
The good news is that returning O-line starters Justin Pugh, Zack Chibane and Macky MacPherson are healthy and ready to go. The bad news is that MacPherson's only backup at center, Rob Trudo, is one of the eight players out for the spring (lower body). Reserve offensive tackle Sean Hickey (knee) is also unavailable, so that leaves just four additional players after two eventually step up as starters. That's not enough to have a second offensive line unit, but Marrone maintains that there will be scrimmages and the game is still scheduled to be played the same way.
In terms of who will have a shot at the one open spot at guard, senior Lou Alexander should have the first crack at the gig based on his experience at the Junior College level combined with a full year with the Orange. Sophomore Ivan Foy has no experience and walk-on Jesse Wolf-Gould is in the same boat.
At tackle, there are more bodies to help try and solidify the right tackle position. CBA product and two-time letter winner Andrew Phillips has considerable special teams experience as a blocker and is the only non-sophomore healthy enough to compete at tackle this spring other than the left tackle Pugh. Kristofer Curtis is the more athletic young talent between he and Nick Robinson, but both have not played in a single college game to date.
4. Setting the Edge
Once the 2011 season wrapped-up, we knew the defensive end position would be one of need going forward with starter Mikhail Marinovich and rotation regular Torrey Ball graduating. But the somewhat sudden departure of fan-favorite and starter Chandler Jones, who declared for the NFL Draft in late December, leaves a hole on both sides of the D-line.
Returning rotation player and solid pass-rusher Brandon Sharpe will almost certainly snag one spot coming off a season in which he contributed 18 tackles and 2 ½ tackles for loss to go along with a ½ sack despite being the No. 4 DE in the mix. Behind him, the spring will help determine who could possibly challenge for a spot on the other side although incoming JUCO standout Markus Pierce-Brewster is expected to make an immediate impact once he arrives in the fall.
Among the candidates to get the leg-up on MPB in the spring is sophomore Donnie Simmons and possibly tweener-sized interior lineman Deon Goggins (6-foot-1, 272 lbs). Micah Robinson saw solid playing time as a sophomore last season, but he is another one of the players out for the spring campaign due to injuy (upper body).
Simmons is a raw talent who needs to add weight if he is to be considered an every-down player, though he is more suited to be tabbed a situational pass-rusher at 226 pounds. Goggins is an explosive lineman who is good with his hands, something that can also help against the run, where Jones particularly struggled during the Orange's five-game losing streak to close out the season. With the interior defensive line holding ground as one of the deeper units on the field, Goggins may prove he has the versatility to learn both positions and flex out when needed.
5. The Secondary Shuffle
When leading tackler, interceptor and best defensive play-maker Phillip Thomas was suspended late in the 2011 season, Jerami Wilkes stepped into a starting role at free safety and had his ups and downs. He will be looked at initially to hold onto the job, though there will be some young heat behind him like fellow Floridian Durell Eskridge and cornerback/safety Ritchy Desir.
Shamarko Thomas will not be tested for his starting strong safety spot, though he has plenty to work on in the spring, especially in coverage. Sophomore Shu Mungwa may have the chance to push Thomas for playing time in passing situations should he turn the corner after sitting out all of his freshman campaign behind an experienced group. Senior James Jarrett is also looking for his first shot a game action.
At corner, two starters will be unavailable for spring ball. Kevyn Scott has graduated and talented cover-man Keon Lyn is out all spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. Ri'Shard Anderson should man one side without question while New York City product and sophomore Brandon Reddish may very well get the first crack at the other side for now after some limited freshman experience. The speedster will have to hold off Desir depending on where he ends up as well as juniors Chris Williamson, a walk-on, and Joe Nassib, who primarily played special teams in 2011. The inexperience after Anderson on the outside could open the door for small sophomore Jaston George, who stands a feisty 5-foot-10, 159 pounds.