The Syracuse offense exploded in its season opener on Saturday. One player who had a breakout performance was senior wide receiver Marcus Sales. After missing the entire 2011 season due to legal trouble, he announced his return in a big way in the Carrier Dome.
If the Orange were going to make a bowl in 2012, they needed a playmaker. Someone to step up and give Nassib a weapon he could exploit. Marcus Sales gave Syracuse that playmaker. With a career high 11 catches for 117 yards and a touchdown, Sales proved the time off did him no worse for wear.
"I have trusted Marcus since we came here together," said senior quarterback Ryan Nassib after the game. "I was really happy with how we connected today."
Sales and Nassib's chemistry was undeniable. The talented wide receiver came back from drug charges that forced him to miss the entire 2011 season. Ultimately, those charges were dropped, but the question remained. How would Sales come back after not having played for nearly two calendar years (he last played in December 2010 in the Pinstripe Bowl).
His last game was a memorable one, catching three touchdowns in Syracuse's only bowl win since Paul Pasqualoni was fired. This game showed that performance was no fluke. In fact, this performance was better for one simple reason. He's a more polished receiver.
Sales ran crisp routes, by far the best route-running of his career. He seemed patient, mature, and possessed a savvy to getting open. Especially impressive was coming up with big catches at important times.
With Syracuse trailing 35-13, Sales caught a 7-yard touchdown pass on a beautiful out-route. He had single coverage and beat his man with a quick, subtle inside fake and then exploded towards the sideline to finish off the route. Nassib hit him in stride and he snagged the ball out of the air for a touchdown.
Moving onto the fourth quarter, the Orange had closed the gap to 35-33. Syracuse lined up, and Nassib took the snap. Sales again had single coverage, and again took advantage of it. Lining up in the slot on a critical third down play, Sales started running up field. That's when he made his move.
A subtle jab-step inside to fake a post followed by a move to the outside to finish his seam route. He blew by the defender with his speed and caught the pass for a big 41-yard gain. In fact, if Nassib had thrown the ball a little further down field, Sales probably scores on the play.
Those subtle moves are what made the difference in Sales' route running on Saturday. They may seem like small details, but they are the important things that turn a talented wide receiver into a great playmaker. Despite that improvement, Doug Marrone still believes Sales has more in him.
"I think that Marcus can do a better job," Marrone declared. "I really do. Marcus has been out of football for a year. I think he got himself off to a good start."
Marrone is right. Sales had a fantastic return, but still has room to improve. He dropped a couple passes that he just shouldn't drop. One even led to a Northwestern interception. With his new focus on the intricacies of being a route runner, Sales appears to be close to putting it all together.