Syracuse University's football program is mere days away from beginning their fall practices. As the team edges closer to the brink of a new season, offensive lineman Justin Pugh will be hoping to edge closer to the day he can suit up alongside his teammates.
"I mean, right now, I'm just focused on getting back as quick as possible," said Pugh, admitting that a lower body injury will sideline the lineman, at least initially. "I probably won't be in camp. I'm going to go down and see my doctor in August. Hopefully it's good news and I'll be able to get back as soon as possible."
Going into this season, Syracuse's offensive line is already looking to fill the vacancies left by Michael Hay and Andrew Tiller, both of whom utilized their last year of eligibility last season. Not having Pugh leaves only Macky MacPherson and Zack Chibane as returning starters from last season to usher in The Opening of camp.
"I hate seeing my guys out there without me so I mean I want to get back as soon as possible. Be out there playing," stated Pugh. "I don't want to miss a game so it's all really dependent on how this next month goes here, the next couple weeks, and how my doctor says I'm doing and then we'll go from there."
As far as the gap left by Hay and Tiller, Pugh spoke on the open competition to close that gap.
"The guys that we're going to have out there is whoever is going to compete and do the best during camp," Pugh stated. "This is a big time for the team right now, going into this fall camp, and I think that guys are going to step up [or] guys are going to maybe not step up to the pressure…we have so many quality guys on the offensive line…since I've been here probably the most talent we've had on the offensive line, so I'm hoping that we'll have some guys step up, and some young guys step up."
With faith in the youth of the team, Pugh also established his belief in the veterans of the team.
"I think the leadership we have from the team with Ryan (Nassib), with some of the guys we have here today [referring to Zack Chibane, Alec Lemon, Shamarko Thomas, and Jay Bromley], I think we'll be alright."
Behind the line, the list of running backs could fill half the field with Jerome Smith, Prince-Tyson Gulley, George Morris, DeVante McFarlane, and others. So, who does Pugh think will be getting the majority of the carries?
"It's the same type of thing with the offensive line. Whoever's going to be that guy, you really don't know until you get the pads on," said Pugh. "In spring ball, we kind of saw Jerome Smith had it, did his thing. Tyson (Prince-Tyson Gulley) you saw last year in the game, once he got out there, so it's really going to be, I don't want to say running back by committee but it's just going to be whoever steps up and makes the plays probably is going to get the ball more."
No matter who is handling the ground work for Syracuse, Pugh is concentrating on being a fundamentally-sound lineman who can protect anyone.
"I'm more focused on making sure no one's tackling them so if we block, you put someone back there and they'll look alright."
Last season, there was breakdown in the offensive line, causing Syracuse's starting quarterback to have to roll out of the pocket or take to his feet in attempt of a first down, but Pugh does not want that to be the case this season.
"Offensive line's got to protect better this year. I think that's something that we're working on and hopefully it'll show come September," he said.
So what went wrong last season?
"I really don't think it was one single thing," Pugh remarked. "It was a culmination of letting ourselves get down early…last season was a disappointment. I really don't want to harp on that ‘cause we're starting new.
"I mean once Saturday hits, we're not even looking back. There's nothing you can do about it now."
Pugh stated that his focus is set on his body. "All I'm looking to this camp is getting out there and getting healthy."
But, with Pugh being held out of practice physically, he is seeking other ways to grow with his teammates. "…mental reps. I mean every play, I'm going to be behind running through the footwork, doing the plays…," he said.
Pugh has even gotten a head start on the season, helping himself by aiding his younger teammates. "I'm actually doing more now watching film than I ever have before ‘cause I'm in there helping out the young guys that haven't been in there," stated Pugh. "And when you start teaching it, you really start to learn it a little bit more ‘cause you're like wait, this little thing, this little thing…"
As Pugh prepares mentally, the question looming in the background is how well he can assimilate himself back into gridiron culture. "I have had a decent amount of reps in games and practices through the past three years," said Pugh. "Obviously I'll knock a little bit of rust coming back but hopefully I'll be alright when I get back. Hopefully I'll be in full swing. Maybe I'll have a little rust but I'll knock it off. Once you get out there and you're playing, there's really nothing else you can do but do what you've always done."
Pugh's faith in his game as well as his return have been met with support and aid from the coaching staff, including Offensive Line Coach, Greg Adkins.
"The coaches have been great, every step of the way, they've just done anything they could to help me out. I guess not being there, he (Greg Adkins) makes sure I still feel like I'm part of the room. When you're injured, sometimes you feel like you're not part of everything because you're not out always out there with the guys."
Despite his upcoming physical absence from, at least, part of training camp, the Orange football coaching staff have held Pugh accountable to himself and to the team.
"Coach Ad (Adkins), Coach (Doug) Marrone just make sure they know I know what I'm doing…they're making sure I try to help out, help the young guys out, and also at the same time, get myself ready."
Pugh continued, "They're questioning me a little bit, making sure I'm on my P's and Q's. It's good. It's a good relationship."
The veteran offensive lineman has placed how prepared he will be on his shoulders, no matter when he will be cleared to play.
Said Pugh, "I don't need to be babied. I don't need to be coddled. I'm a fourth year. I'm a senior."