Syracuse football in 2012, or at least the success of the program, may rest on Doug Marrone and Ryan Nassibs' collective shoulders, but there are plenty of moving parts surrounding the coach and the quarterback on this year's bunch.
So much so that there are literally uncertainties at nearly every position on both sides of the ball with the first game now less than a month away. Whether it's in the backfield, defensive line or at free safety – there is plenty to be debated among the players and coaching staff throughout camp and beyond.
But let's skip all of that and offer who should win each spot.
Editor's Note: The following predictions are based on 2011 game tape, projections and scheme, not talent, seniority or anything else.
Winner(s): Smith and Gulley
Why? Here's what we know. There won't be a single back that holds all of the duties of the rushing load on his shoulders. What we don't know, is what the new direction of the offense may change. Smith and Gulley are a natural 1-2 punch, but Broyld is almost certain to see some touches from either the tailback, quarterback or receiver spots. Morris may not be ready and Ameen-Moore may be too late. Smith's rise in work ethic and responsibility make him a fan-favorite heading into 2012, and he will have the near-1,000 yards at the end of the campaign to back it up with Gulley as the third-down, change-of-pace compliment.
Candidates : With Tiller and Hay having moved on, the two spots are there for Ivan Foy, Lou Alexander, Sean Hickey and Rob Trudo on the right side. *Yes, Pugh is injured, but for the purpose of this story, he will be back in time for Northwestern.
Winner(s): Trudo and Hickey
Why? That a big enough wrench in the plans? Trudo and Hickey have always had the natural talent and strength to step up, and the duo of Foy and Alexander seems like a temporary fix at the moment. Hickey will learn the tougher position of left tackle in Pugh's absence before shifting over to the right side, while Trudo will push MacPherson for some center time before the staff realizes he may be the most complete guard on the roster.
2011 Starter: Nick Provo, now graduated and seeking an NFL team
Why? The now-suddenly 266-pound incoming freshman is already the best receiving tight end of the bunch, and now he suddenly has the weight on him to become more of a balanced product. Yes, the schemes at the NCAA level will fluster him initially, but Marrone and co. have had their eye on him for some time, and he will get the first crack at replacing Provo as a true freshman. Wales will be a close second, and much like the running backs, there will be a rotation either way.
2011 Starter: Phillip Thomas, now with the Washington Redskins
Why? The sophomore has completed the 180. He came in as a wideout two seasons ago, adjusted to playing DB for one year and now it's his time to unseat the senior incumbent at free safety. The now 6-foot-3, 205-pounder has an ideal free safety frame to go along with his progression all while having the ability to learn from Shamarko Thomas during his final campaign. Nobody made more strides this spring than Eskridge, and it showed up on tape when cameras were permitted to role.
Why? For what the fourth corner on the defense will be asked to do, Whigham is the man for the job. He maintains his long frame and supreme ball skills are among the best on the roster, especially in zone coverage. If the fourth corner is asked to play more of a slot or man-to-man role, than Morgan is the guy. He is physical and has the ability to rebound with makeup speed better than most defensive backs available.
Winner(s): Spruill, Diabate and Vaughan
Why? Spruill has moved to the outside because of his lengthy healing process combined with Diabate's rise, but the most talented play-maker of the group won't be behind anyone for long. Spruill will surge by whoever is in his way on the outside. Davis and Lynch will very much be in the rotation, but Vaughan's steadiness and knowledge of Scott Shaffer's system will enable him to hold off the youngsters for the time being.
Winner(s): Pierce-Brewster, Crume, Bromley and Sharpe
Why? In easily the toughest race to call, the defensive line is a wonderful mess -wonderful because there are several worthy candidates at each spot. Three of the four 2011 starters are gone, and Bromley will retain his top spot as Crume slides next to him in the most inevitable move. On the outside, Pirece-Brwester's raw speed and pass-rushing talent will be too top-notch to ignore as most of the teams in the Big East move to a spread look. Sharpe is more balanced on the other end, though Welsh will provide plenty of competition in the coming weeks. The dark-horses are Jones and Simmons because of their situational ability. Jones is one of the bigger players on the entire roster, but he has a special ability to rush the passer from the inside. Simmons has added weight, but still may have the best contain-ability among the defensive ends, a part of the game that was often costly to SU against read-option teams like Cincinnati, South Florida, Louisville and Connecticut down the stretch.
Positions that have more than one candidate were the only ones addressed in this report.