For the first time this spring, fans and media were able to take in a Syracuse football practice as the team traveled to Sahlen's Stadium in Rochester on Saturday.
There was a scrimmage, individual practice sessions and some special-teams work done, followed by a player autograph session while Coach Doug Marrone addressed the media.
"We didn't want to give anyone a false impression of who we are going to be coming out in the season," said the coach on why he closed the spring practices before todays. "We were just trying to figure out ourselves before taking it out to the public.
"The level of focus is higher when you close all of the distractions down."
While there weren't any bust-out performances to report on, there was plenty of position battles and trends taking shape throughout the afternoon as well as several other observations and tid-bits to take away from the day and we'll even provide a starting 11 on both sides of the ball, with a projected two-deep on the way later this spring.
As one would imagine, despite reports of young quarterbacks taking aim at him, Ryan Nassib was the clear-cut No. 1 signal-caller on the roster. He proved it with his first-team reps and with his play.
The offense didn't attack the defense down-the-field very much, but Nassib was effective in the short-to-intermediate passing game and he looks to be right back on track with Marcus Sales, who we saw for the first time since his three-touchdown performance in the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl.
Fittingly, he hauled in a score the first time he touched it on Saturday, too. Sales would go on to score once more later on, and he added a crafty two-point conversion to the day's resume. The second touchdown, however, was on a spectacular, body-parallel-to-the-floor grab right on the goal-line. The other receivers combined for just four catches on the day.
"(Sales) has had a very good camp…we're very pleased with him, he's done a heck of a job," said Marrone after the session.
Nassib hit the tight ends and running backs, especially on screen plays, throughout the scrimmage. His quick decision-making made the other quarterbacks look like they were a step behind – though Marrone maintains that there continues to be a position battle there.
Nassib also ran the ball from the QB spot; something Marrone said will be another dimension of the offense.
But the guy who most of us thought would be pushing Nassib, freshman Ashton Broyld, only saw a handful of plays in the scrimmage – including some as a running back. He ran the zone-read a couple of times, fumbled one snap and didn't attempt a pass in the limited exposure he got.
"He's battling to get his way up the depth chart, but we're also dual-training him," admitted Marrone. "He has the most on his plate as a young player. (As a running back) He can one-cut and stay low to the ground. He's a big, physical player and he can throw the ball.
"He's a play-maker."
It was another runner who looked like the best play-maker on the offensive side of the ball, and that was tailback Jerome Smith. The rising junior was shifty in space and powerful when he needed to be all while seemingly taking a stranglehold of the up-for-grab running back spot with Antwon Bailey departed.
The 5-foot-11, 213-pounder looked to be in shape, and made the first defender miss more times than not on Saturday.
"He came back from multiple injuries early on in his career, he's really looking to become the kind of play-maker we need," said Marrone. "He made a couple of big runs today, and that's consistent of what's been going on this spring with Jerome."
Prince-Tyson Gulley got off to a shaky start on Saturday with a pair of fumbles, but later showed the burst and open-field speed that earned him time last season before an injury ended his 2011 campaign.
Up front, returning starters Justin Pugh, Zack Chibane and Macky MacPherson held their own. They were joined on the first-team, for today at least, by Ivan Foy at right guard and Lou Alexander at right tackle. The two are occupying the spots on the line voided by Michael Hay and Andrew Tiller's departure. The new-look unit was utilized on both sides, though it seemed as if the left side was the play-side most of the time.
The group handled most situations well, though the defense was clearly the victor in the blitz pick-up portion of the day.
QB Ryan Nassib
FB Myles Davis
RB Jerome Smith
WR1 Marcus Sales
WR2 Jeremiah Kobena
TE Beckett Walkes
LT Justin Pugh
LG Zack Chibane
C Macky MacPherson
RG Ivan Foy
RT Lou Alexander
With holes at defensive end, linebacker, safety and corner in the spring – there is much to evaluate for the Orange defenders. Saturday provided a glimpse, but it was more about tweaking schematics than personnel. Like the offense implementing some runs from the quarterback, the defense looked only slightly different than normal.
There was a tweak in the secondary in that it looked like they disguised more coverages and moved around some - along with some pre-snap talking. The rule for that is to try to avoid "disguising out of your assignment," but it didn't seem to be an issue against the offense. There were no glaring blown-coverages or missed assignments.
As for the personnel, the first crack at replacing Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich went to Donnie Simmons and Brandon Sharpe. Each played well throughout the day, but Deon Goggins – who recently moved out to defensive end from an interior spot – was on their trail with an equally-solid effort. On the inside, Jay Bromley and Cory Boatman were steady, often plugging the inside runs the offense attempted against them.
The linebackers, which Marrone noted are a strength to the defense and the team, were also above-average on Saturday. Siriki Diabate got the nod to replace Marquis Spruill (lower-body injury) for the short-term, and he showed the ability to occupy the middle as a run defender. Diabate was flanked by Dyshawn Davis on the strong side and Cameron Lynch, who may have vaulted Dan Vaughan for the starting job, on the other side.
Oliver Vigille saw a significant amount of playing time at linebacker, and he held his own despite missing a few tackles.
The most frequent question marks defensively come in the secondary. Cornerback Ri'Shard Anderson and strong safety Shamarko Thomas are the only healthy returning starters able to practice, so Brandon Reddish was in at the other corner and Jeremi Wilkes continued working at free safety now that Phillip Thomas is heading to the NFL.
Each "starter" was decent on the day in pass coverage, but the free safety spot was rotated more than most positions. Shu Mungwa saw the second-most time after Wilkes, though Ritchy Desir and Durell Eskridge each saw time next to Thomas. It appears as if the spot will continue to be a battle for the rest of the spring.
"They've had a good camp, we're excited," Marrone said of the young safeties. "It's great to see Shutang out there. He was injured all of last year…Durell has done extremely well back there so we've upgraded ourselves at those positions."
Desir was around the ball all over the field, and he made the big hit of the afternoon - on Wales - to force an incompletion.
NT Cory Boatman
DT Jay Bromley
DE Donnie Simmons
DE Brandon Sharpe
SLB Dyshawn Davis
MLB Siriki Diabate
WLB Cameron Lynch
CB Ri'Shard Anderson
CB Brandon Reddish
FS Jeremi Wilkes
SS Shamarko Thomas
TE Louie Addazio, RB Travon Burke, WR Kyle Foster, RB Steve Rene, RB Greg Tobias and WR Jarrod West did not participate because of either injuries or academics. The individual reasons were not disclosed.
"At the end of spring, I'll tell everyone where everyone is from the standpoint of injury and when we expect them to return," said Marrone. "If someone is back and they're not injured because of the academics, we should feel comfortable about them (at that point)."
Reserve WR Macauley Hill appeared to injure his leg early in the practice, and he sat out the remainder of the session.