Syracuse is just past the midway point of their 2013 schedule, and sit at 3-4. CuseNation's Mike McAllister and John Garcia Jr. break down who have been the best and worst for the Orange seven games into the season.
McAllister's Top Talent: RB Jerome Smith – Smith has been the most consistent weapon for Syracuse. With over 500-yards rushing and eight touchdowns, Smith has been what the Orange expected after a strong sophomore campaign. He has shown increased burst and the ability to get to the edge a bit better than last season.
Garcia Jr.'s Top Talent: Jerome Smith, Running Back
The running back has been the only sign of consistency on an inconsistent and imbalanced offense. The running game in general, with he and Prince-Tyson Gulley, needs to be utilized more and more in my opinion, even sprinkled in with Terrel Hunt at times. Either way, it's Smith that paces the offense and generally gets the unit going no matter the field position. He's been extra solid near the goal line, scoring in all but one game this season with power and strength all while maintaining a more than 5 yards per carry average. Smith has increased his open field speed this fall, but most impressively has maintained his solid pass-protection skill while improving his vision as a runner which has sprung him on big runs more and more this season.
McAllister's Middle Man: RB Prince-Tyson Gulley – After a slow start to the season, Gulley has come on over the last few games. He is on pace to rush for over 600-yards, and already has four touchdown runs. Gulley hasn't been as impactful in the passing game, however, averaging less than four yards per receptions.
Garcia Jr.'s Middle Man: Macky MacPherson, Center
The running game is the strength of the Syracuse team, and the pass protection has been pretty good in allowing just under 1.5 sacks per game, mostly because of the calls and improvement of the center. He continues to add strength to an undersized frame, but has improved on his technique in leading what is still a very good inside running attack for the Orange, which sits just under 200 yards per game - good for fourth in the ACC.
McAllister's Bottom Feeder: WR Jarrod West – Coming into the season, West was supposed to be the top receiving threat. Through seven games, he has only 13 catches. In an offense clamoring for a playmaker or deep receiving threat to stretch the field, West has failed at both despite being the most experienced player at the position coming into the season.
Garcia Jr.'s Bottom Feeder: Jarrod West, Wide Receiver
It hasn't just been West on the outside for the Orange's lack of explosive threats for Hunt, Drew Allen and company, but he's the microcosm of the unit's failure. The senior has been a big part of the offense as a compliment over the last two seasons, causing many to expect a good senior campaign as the go-to wideout, but he's been a non-factor in six of the seven games. West lacks acceleration, big-play ability and even the consistency that most grew to like about him. He's fourth on the team among wide receivers in receptions, and has just one more than backup tailback Gulley. It's just not good enough, especially considering the Orange's struggles at the quarterback position and how desperately the offense is in need of a play-maker.
McAllister's Top Talent: DT Jay Bromley – Bromley is playing at an all-ACC level. He has been strong against the run and even better collapsing the pocket up the middle. He has six sacks on the season and been a consistent performer week in and week out.
Garcia Jr.'s Top Talent: Jay Bromley, Defensive Tackle
The Orange is a top-three defense in the conference in tackles for loss, and that has plenty to do with the push from Bromley up the middle. Whether he notches the feat or creates space for a blitzing linebacker or fellow trench talent, he's been a force for many teams to deal with in 2013. The senior averages over one tackle for loss per game, also good for the No. 3 spot in the ACC while leading the team in sacks. He's got All-ACC written all over him this year.
McAllister's Middle Man: CB Julian Whigham – The athletic defensive back with big upside has made strides in 2013. He has improved his ball skills picking off a pair of pass attempts, while also becoming versatile enough to play corner or safety. However, he has had some communication issues and coverage break downs.
Garcia Jr.'s Middle Man: Marquis Spruill, Middle Linebacker
Spruill has been the top linebacker on the roster this fall, and has been a bright spot in two blowout losses to Clemson and Georgia Tech in the process. He's second on the team in tackles, which is to be expected, but it's his improvement as a blitzer and pass-rusher that has him high on this list. The senior has moved around all three linebacker spots in his SU career and he's still been able to call the defense this fall as the man in the middle. His pass coverage skills are still a work in progress, but he hasn't made the big-play mistakes that several others within the unit have through seven games.
McAllister's Bottom Feeder: S Jeremi Wilkes – Supposed to be one of the senior leaders on the Syracuse defense, Wilkes has struggled in coverage throughout the 2013 campaign. He has blown assignments in coverage, bit on double moves, and had issues in communication with other members of the secondary.
Garcia Jr.'s Bottom Feeder: Jeremi Wilkes, Safety
Like the wide receivers on offense, the secondary has been a disappointment as a whole. Not only have experienced players been beat one-on-one on a consistent basis, but several big plays over the last few games stem from simple breakdowns in communication, and that falls on the senior safety. Wilkes has played both safety and corner as a member of the Orange, so he should be in full control of the unit, but he has gone unnoticed of late and has even been losing considerable reps to newcomer Darius Kelly in passing situations. Wilkes' tackling skills haven't improved much in the process, making him a near-liability on the field more times than not. SU is ranked 13th in the ACC in passing defense, and the safety play in general has a lot to do with it.
McAllister's Top Talent: P Riley Dixon – Who had Dixon being the best special teams player for the Orange before the season? Since taking over for Jonathan Fisher, Dixon has shown a strong leg and punted with consistency. He has become a valuable weapon for Syracuse in the kicking game.
Garcia Jr.'s Top Talent: Riley Dixon, Punter
Dixon has been consistent despite an increased workload over the last few weeks, averaging a very solid 44 yards per punt this fall. The mark is good for second in the conference thus far, as well as No. 16 in America. He has had an assist from his coverage units in five of the seven games thus far, masking what was an inconsistent unit a season ago.
McAllister's Middle Man: PR Ritchy Desir – Desir is not spectacular, and not a real threat to take one to the house. However, he is steady as a punt returner with good hands. Contrary to 2012, there have not been the major blunder that has cost Syracuse a game. Still, the Orange could get more production out of the position. Desir is consistent, but does not offer much more potential. What you see is what you get.
Garcia Jr.'s Middle Man: Wayne Morgan, Kick Coverage
As mentioned, the coverage units on both kick and punt returns have been solid for the most part. Morgan is an end-man on kickoff coverage and a gunner on punt coverage, and he's made some big plays that both show up and don't show up on the stat sheet. He's been the first one down more times than not, busted through mini-wedges to cut-off running lanes and made several good open-field tackles in the process. The kick return defense is No. 4 in the ACC, giving up less than 19 yards per attempt.
McAllister's Bottom Feeder: The kick returners - Many thought Brisly Estime or Darius Kelly would contribute as the kick returner for Syracuse. However, George Morris, DeVante McFarlane and Prince-Tyson Gulley have all had their turn. Each has struggled and failed to give Syracuse solid starting field position. The return game has been below average and the Orange need a spark.
Garcia Jr.'s Bottom Feeder: Ritchy Desir, Punt Returner
3.3 yards. Per return. Simply put, it's not good enough. While there haven't been major blunders in the return game with turnovers and /or bone-head mistakes, achieving about 10 feet in yardage every time a punt is fielded in college is depressing. The unit has had sparks with others like Brisly Estime on punts and Gulley on kick returns, and that's the direction the unit should probably go towards from here on in with the lack of production from Desir as a returner.