As Scott Shafer sets to embark on his first season as Syracuse's head coach, the Orange are also entering their first in the ACC. There are question marks, reasons to be optimistic, and intrigue as the season kicks off just a few days from today.
Syracuse has more depth at different positions than they've had in some time. At running back, they have four talented players that should all contribute in 2013. Jerome Smith will return as the starter, and Prince-Tyson Gulley will be back for a similar role from 2012. George Morris had a strong spring is looking to break out this season. Devant McFarlane has a lot of talent and has shown flashes throughout spring and fall camp.
Running back is the most talented position on the Orange roster and will be the strongest part of the offensive attack. The physical, pounding nature of Smith's game combined with the ability of Gulley to get around the outside or be a factor in the passing game gives Syracuse as strong a one-two punch as there is in the conference. Combine that with a young talent in Morris who has a rare combination of speed, power and athleticism and the Orange have a strong three-headed monster in the backfield. Adding in McFarlane's elusiveness and knack between the tackles will only benefit Syracuse as they look to have one of the better ground attacks in the ACC.
Opening up holes for the talented runners are the big guys up front along the offensive line. Despite losing a first round draft pick in Justin Pugh and the graduating Zack Chibane, Syracuse has a plethora of options. The starting offensive line will likely feature four returning contributors in Sean Hickey, who shifts from right to left tackle, captain Macky MacPherson, Rob Trudo, who shifts from right to left guard and Ivan Foy, who shifts from right guard to right tackle. Add in the steady Nick Robinson and the Orange have a formidable group. Much will depend on the production on the right side with Foy and Robinson.
Waiting in the wings are some young bucks that could step in when needed. Kyle Knapp has a huge upside and is just starting to realize that talent. He could play either tackle spot if called upon. Inside, Omari Palmer got some reps with the ones while Trudo missed a couple practices. He has been pushing Robinson and has a higher upside. If needed, he could step in and has the potential to be a force in the run game. John Miller has the versatility to play guard or center. Jason Emerich is the future at center and has impressed the staff during the spring and fall.
In the defensive backfield, Syracuse has improved the athleticism of this group over the last few recruiting cycles. Those efforts are paying dividends entering this season as they have arguably more talent than they've had in over a decade. Keon Lyn and Ri'Shard Anderson are the starters at corner as they both return for their final seasons in Orange. Brandon Reddish proved in 2012 that he is a third starting cornerback that can play the slot or stay with receivers on the outside. Durell Eskridge is poised to have a big season as he replaces Shamarko Thomas. Jeremi Wilkes and Wayne Morgan form an experienced and talented duo at the safety spot.
Reddish adds depth to the Orange secondary
Speed and versatility are the name of the game in the secondary. Morgan can move down to corner if needed. Julian Whigham has had one of the most impressive camps on the roster and will be utilized as a fourth corner as well as a safety in the Okie packages. His athleticism and length has earned rave reviews from head coach Scott Shafer. The key for this unit will be to help the Orange defense force turnovers. That has been a struggle over the past few seasons, but this group is much more talented. A big year is expected from the Syracuse secondary.
George McDonald comes into Syracuse with a reputation as a strong recruiter. But how will he do running the Orange offense? Coming off one of the most prolific seasons in school history, McDonald has his work cut out for him in 2013. His system should feature multiple formations, interchanging personnel groups, and diversity to keep the opposition off balance. But his scheme is a big question entering the season.
The most discussed topic throughout the offseason was who will replace Ryan Nassib as the leader of the Syracuse offense. Less than a week from kickoff against Penn State and that question has not been officially answered. Both Terrel Hunt and Drew Allen have shown themselves as capable starters during fall camp.
Allen has a bit more pocket presence than Hunt and has a stronger arm. Both can use their legs to escape the rush, but Allen is the better runner in order to scramble and pick up a first down. Regardless of who ends up being the guy, Allen or Hunt will be the key to the season. Adequate quarterback play will be needed if the Orange are to get back to a bowl game.
The strong running game will help, but if the quarterback isn't able to make plays down the field, Syracuse can expect a lot of eight or nine man fronts daring the Orange to beat them in the mid/long range passing game. That's where some wide receivers must step up to make it easier on the Syracuse signal caller.
West becomes the top target in 2013
Jarrod West proved to be a solid option last year out of the slot. This season, he jumps to the number one receiver role. In order for the passing game to be successful, West has to elevate his game and become a legit number one ACC receiver. Behind him there are a lot of uknowns.
Adrian Flemming has some of the best hands on the team and is poised to finally get significant playing time in his final season. Fully recovered from his 2012 injury plagued season, Flemming could be one of the answers to stretching the field. He is more of a glider than a burner, but has the ability to get down field and the athleticism to get to jump balls. Combining his 6-foot-3 frame with West's 6-foot-2 version gives the Orange two big receivers that could be very productive in redzone situations.
Chris Clark emerged as a starter in the spring, but lost his job to Flemming rather easily. He has good straight-line speed, but is a small receiver that will likely contribute in a backup role. Jeremiah Kobena has been very impressive during camp and could be a strong option to become the vertical thread the Orange are looking for. He certainly has the speed, but has shown signs of improved route running and hands during camp.
Redshirt freshmen Ben Lewis and Alvin Cornelius have had their moments as well. Cornelius was productive in both the spring and fall, showing good hands and the ability to be a deep threat. Cornelius is more likely to contribute in 2013, but both will likely be in a rotational role to start the season.
Quinta Funderburk was expected to be the answer at wide receiver entering the spring. He fell on the depth chart then and hasn't shown much during the practice sessions open to the media. The Arkansas transfer has struggled to get separation throughout camp. However, his raw athleticism, speed and size give him all of the tools to be a playmaker. How much he can give Syracuse this season is a mystery.
One of the players that worked with the receivers throughout camp is Ashton Broyld. His role in the offense is a big question entering the season. Coach Shafer mentioned the possibility of using him at quarterback in certain packages. He's been working all offseason on improving his hands to make him a threat in the passing game. Broyld's athleticism and playmaking ability is well documented. As the Orange look for a playmaking threat on offense, Broyld could be the guy to step into that role.
Brisly Estime is another player that could step up on offense. He has been praised by Coach Shafer a few times during camp and has the speed to give the Orange a dynamic they haven't had in years. As a true freshman, expectations should be tempered. But he's someone to keep an eye on. Estime could see the field in certain packages as Syracuse tries to get him in space to take advantage of his skill set.
Syracuse has a new defensive coordinator in Chuck Bullough. He and Scott Shafer believe in the same things systematically. But the Orange players have said to a man that this year's scheme is more diverse and presents the offense with a lot of different looks. How that plays out on the field will be something to watch.
The biggest questions start up front. Syracuse has to replace three starters along the defensive line from a year ago. Part of that challenge will include finding a consistent pass rushing threat. There are a lot of guys to choose from, most of whom will be in the rotation. Pass rushing by committee will likely be the theme for Syracuse in 2013.
Can Robinson become a consistent pass rusher?
Robert Welsh and Micah Robinson are consistent, adequate defensive ends, but neither is a game changer. Welsh has a bit more potential of becoming a pass rushing threat as he is a little quicker around the edge than Robinson.
Ron Thompson switched positions and is now looking to be one of the primary backups which should include plenty of snaps each game. As camp progressed, Thompson became more and more comfortable in his new home. The athleticism and quickness that made him a highly touted tight end prospect coming out of high school could translate into the Orange finding their pass rushing answer down the road. But initial struggles should be expected.
Two intriguing players in Trevon Trejo and Isaiah Johnson will be involved in the rotation. How much is to be determined, but Trejo is a long, lean athlete who could be that guy off the edge. Johnson is a tank who has shown explosion and strength that is unexpected for a true freshman.
Syracuse has to find pass rushing in that group somewhere or they will be forced to blitz more often which could lead to big plays for the opposition. The guys in the middle could help by collapsing the pocket as well. Jay Bromley is a steady as it gets. He could be one of the better interior defensive linemen in the conference. Expect Bromley to take that next step this season and jump into the NFL Draft conversation.
Eric Crume will get his chance to start as a big nose tackle that takes up space on the interior. Crume has been solid during camp and does his job well. Teaming with Bromley should allow the Syracuse run defense to be solid up the middle. John Raymon and Zian Jones will factor into the rotation as well, giving Syracuse four quality tackles with size.
If Syracuse has to blitz to generate consistent pressure, linebackers Dyshawn Davis and Cam Lynch will be the primary candidates. They are the two best blitzers on the team will help the Orange defense create negative plays for the opposing offense as well as quick decisions that could result in turnovers. The question with that group is consistency in the run game and covering down the field.
Spruill was named one of the captains of the 2013 Orange
How will Davis and Marquis Spruill be able to cover tight ends down the field? They have the speed, but have struggled in that department in the past. Against the run, they have created some big plays but also given up their far share of quality runs. Syracuse has the experience in this group, but Davis and Spruill have to take that next step. That could be a big key for the Orange defense.
Right out of the Gate
Syracuse opens with two Big-10 opponents in Penn State and Northwestern. Coming out of that stretch at least 1-1 is critical for the rest of the season. The Orange will be tested and should provide a good measuring stick early.
Most Important Game
The season opener against Penn State, as the schedule looks before the year begins, looks to be the most critical game for the Orange. A win means setting the tone for the rest of the season and an all-but guaranteed 3-1 start. It creates buzz around the fan base and makes navigating the rest of the schedule easier in order to qualify for a bowl bid.
Most Difficult Game
The road game at Florida State presents many challenges for the Orange. It is the last of a four road contests in a five game stretch for Syracuse. The Seminoles are more talented all over the field and have the home field advantage.
Most Anticipated Game
Without question, the most discussed game when the schedule came out was the ACC opener against a Clemson team that could be ranked in the top five, potentially, when they come into the Carrier Dome. It has the best chance to get a strong crowd and will test Syracuse's streak of upsetting highly ranked opponents in the Dome over the last few seasons.
Syracuse has the horses in the backfield and the hogs up front to be able to have a strong running game throughout the season. Being able to rotate four talented backs in and out will keep them fresh as the season progresses, and give opposing defenses a lot to prepare for in their game plan. The ground and pound should set up playaction and give the Orange passing attack the opportunity to make plays.
Up front, the left side of the offensive line is as solid as it gets. Hickey, Trudo and MacPherson form a triad that should allow plenty of chances in the run game while giving the quarterback time to survey the defense.
Defensively, the Orange have athletes all over the field. Guys that can run, hit and make plays. With the depth in the secondary and at linebacker, Syracuse will have opportunities to make plays. The experience is there as well with four seniors and two juniors in the starting back seven.
Areas of Concern
The passing game is a huge concern entering the season. Whoever the quarterback turns out to be, he will jog onto the MetLife field without any starts in his back pocket. The receivers are a huge question mark as they look for playmakers and vertical threats. The ability of Syracuse to at least be a competent passing offense will be the difference between watching or playing in a bowl.
Similarly on defense, how do the Orange generate a pass rush? They need a defense end to step up and become that guy. If all of their pressure comes from Davis, Lynch, or others blitzing it doesn't bode well for the long-term success of the defense.
If Syracuse can solve their two biggest concerns entering the season, vertical passing game and pass rush from the defensive line, they have the pieces in place to a very solid football team. One that can upset a team or two in 2013 and one that should be bowl bound when all is said and done.