Spring Football: What did we learn?

Syracuse wrapped-up its spring football season on Saturday with the annual spring game, and reporters had the chance to talk to both players and coaches for the first time soon after. With a pair of public outings in the books, CuseNation.com takes a look at what we learned through the limited access.

There weren't many fireworks on either April 7 or 21, when Syracuse football was on display for the public. Still, there were several differences and tweaks to both the offense and defense that are worth noting. Here's what we learned, based on the limited access to the program, of course.

Ryan Nassib is your starter in 2012, without a doubt

In case you weren't able to watch the spring game, you didn't miss much on the quarterback front. Nassib was the clear-cut best signal-caller out there, though John Kinder progressed late in the spring. Charley Loeb was said to have a fantastic spring session, but it wasn't evidenced by his inconsistent throwing and decision-making when we were able to see him pass the football.

Nassib separated himself from the other guys further with solid decisions, a quicker-looking release and some added zip on the ball all while seemingly picking up right where he left off with Marcus Sales in terms of rapport and chemistry.

"This guy's alright," Nassib joked after the spring game in reference to Sales. The two connected for a pair of hookups for 68 yards.

Players took advantage of injuries to others at their position

Whether it was Sales, Jeremiah Kobena or Brandon Reddish – injury created opportunity behind some starters that will help the Orange in 2012.

Sales was able to snag most of the reps as the top wideout on the roster with Alec Lemon sidelined (upper-body). The result was the impact SU fans were expecting, and apparently it was there even when we weren't watching.

"With a smaller receiving corps this spring, Marcus was able to get all of the reps," said Nassib. "He was out there getting all of the throws, facing all of the adjustments. With him and a lot of the younger guys, who haven't played, that's something they really needed.

"They've progressively gotten better and better as spring wore on hopefully they'll be able to take it forward into camp."

Kobena looked as speedy as he always has, but he looked to be much-improved in the pass-catching department, particularly on an over-the-shoulder connection with Nassib for the longest gain of the spring game (48 yards).

"He's starting to believe in his techniques and everything, and obviously he has great speed," said WR coach Rob Moore. "He's learning how to use that to his advantage and I just look for him to continue to get better and better."

But it will be Sales that has the most work to do going forward, according to the coach.

"He's had to do a lot of work; when he got here, he wasn't in football shape," admitted Moore. "But I think he's brought some veteran leadership, has a great command of the offense…but the offseason will be important for him.

"He's going to have to get himself stronger, get his strength back – if he can do those things he'll be able to help a lot this year."

On the defensive side of the ball, Siriki Diabate stepped in well for Marquis Spruill (lower-body) at middle linebacker – and he capped it off with an interception along with leading the team in tackles on Saturday. Micah Robinson's injury (upper-body) opened the door for Deon Goggins to slide out to defensive end , although it looks as if Donnie Simmons took the most advantage of the injury – starting on Saturday and taking first-team reps more times than not. Even with those trends on D, it was Reddish who took the most advantage – by far.

With Keon Lyn (upper-body) sidelines, Reddish took every first-team rep opposite Ri'Shard Anderson at cornerback, and he capped it with a monster spring game. The rising sophomore recorded a trio of pass breakups and nearly snagged an interception in the process.

"This game was meant for mature players," Shamarko Thomas said of Reddish and the other young defensive backs. "Teach them the scheme and knowledge to keep us focused and competing out there."

Even Doug Marrone noticed Reddish's improvement with Lyn sidelined.

Said the head coach, "Someone like Brandon Reddish (benefitted from injury), who got about 490-500 reps, we did a good job during the course of spring football."

Ashton Broyld will be a factor in the offense, likely in more than one way

Broyld lined up as a running back, wide receiver and at quarterback throughout the spring – and it followed suit in the spring game. His day was relatively pedestrian yardage-wise, but he did get the crowd going with a 44-yard catch-and-run from the slot position. Still, it will take time before Broyld is ready to emerge as a primary weapon.

"The kid's got tremendous upside. But like any incoming freshman, you get a lot put on you at first," said Nassib. "With the playbook, getting lined up – it's a lot. Instead of trying to throw everything on him at once, we're trying to go piece by piece…we know how much he can help us."

Marrone is taking a similar approach to Broyld.

"The young player coming in is very talented, and he's labeled a play-maker," he said. "We just have to bring him a long to where he can help us win. Whether it's as a dual-threat quarterback, running back or split out. He will be a great asset to us offensively."

From the players' perspective, the media blackout helped

Syracuse was on display just twice during the spring, so 13 practices were held without any outside eyes on looking. After the game, players eluded to the fact that it allowed the team to build chemistry and rapport within itself.

"Without the press there, it was just us," said OL Zack Chibane. "It's helped us to buckle down and get things done."

"It brought us closer together, because we didn't have any distractions," said DE Brandon Sharpe, who scored the spring game's only touchdown. "We just had the football team there to help re-make the program."

The changes to the offensive and defensive schemes were more like tweaks

With the buzz around Broyld and the pressure on Nassib, SU fans were expecting a spread look to help ignite the offensive unit this spring. Instead, it got slight changes that even had some established precedent before Broyld.

"After last year, we realized we needed a little more offensive performance and we added a little wrinkle with the quarterback running, or the option to have the quarterback run," said Nassib. "It's not really new to me; I kind of did that a couple years ago when I was a redshirt freshman. The younger quarterbacks are doing well with that, too."

If anything, the offense was simplified to enable the skill-position players to make a bigger impact.

"They cut out a lot of stuff and gave the play-makers a chance to make plays," said Sales." Hopefully it's a success at the end of the day."

Chibane added, "We're not going to be one dimensional….it can only help us."

The defense used more players at the back-end, particularly against passing situations when it traveled Thomas down in the box and brought in an extra safety instead of the usual slot cornerback that most defenses utilize.

The other noticeable tweak was in pre-snap communication and disguising – which led to aggressive play from the back-seven.

"We're just trying to hide schemes. Last year, everybody knew our base defense – cover 4 and cover 2, and we just want to change it and make them think we're in cover 4 when we're in cover two," said Thomas. "We got smarter on the defensive end…the communication out there is helping us roam around."

There are still some glaring holes on the roster

The offensive line, which played without its best player in Justin Pugh on Saturday (lower-body), is easily the weakest unit on the team. Nick Robinson was forced to slide into the left guard spot usually occupied by Chibane – who slid out to take care of Pugh's usual left-tackle duties. But the bigger problem may be on the other side of the line, where Lou Alexander and Ivan Foy will be replacing departed seniors Andrew Tiller and Michael Hay.

Chibane says it's a process, though he admitted there was some struggle within the group.

"It's hard to really come up, especially during spring. We had three practices then the first scrimmage," he said. "They had some rust, but they're coming along well and we're excited. "

Other question-marks lie within the offense at running back and tight end, where it seems a host of players will try to replace the consistent production of senior running back Antwon Bailey and tight end Nick Provo.

Defensive end will continue to be a position of need as well – although there are several experienced players at the position. Free safety will also be a long-term battle, though Jeremi Wilkes is the only experienced player in the mix for the full-time gig.

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