While Syracuse fans lay basking in the glory of their convincing Camping World Bowl victory, the West Virginia camp is probably putting an asterisk next to it. With NFL draft stock on the line, quarterback Will Grier, wide receiver Gary Jennings and left tackle Yodny Cajuste all sat out of the bowl game. As one could probably guess, the Mountaineer offense was stagnant and out of sync all night long. A team that averaged north of 40 points was held to just 18 after having a month to prepare for Syracuse’s defense.
While the Orange can point, laugh and throw up upside down W signs in mockery of West Virginia, it should also be taking notes. Those personnel absences will be the exact ones that SU faces in 2019. Syracuse is set to lose its quarterback Eric Dungey, left tackle Cody Conway and 900 yard receiver Jamal Custis. With those essential pieces graduating, there lies plenty of questions surrounding the team with those positions all now warranting a backup to step up.
These changes leave the Orange both more and less prepared, depending on the area. One thing that certainly favors SU is the fact that it has spring ball and the offseason to fix these holes and mesh. West Virginia had just a couple of weeks.
At quarterback, you see some fill-in similarities. The Mountaineers turned to redshirt sophomore Jack Allison, who had only attempted 10 passes prior to the bowl game. Meanwhile, the Orange will have a redshirt sophomore under center in Tommy DeVito. Both guys are pro-style pocket passers who came in with four star ratings. DeVito has already put a bit of a fingerprint on the program. He filled in for two big wins against Florida State and led a thrilling comeback against UNC. But he also had his fair share of hiccups throughout the year. Aside from those performances, DeVito logged time in five games and went 22-for-52 (42 percent) passing the ball with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Both inexperienced quarterbacks will be, and have been asked to be, the motor to high powered offenses. Will DeVito live up to his recruiting ranking as the heir to one of the program’s greatest quarterbacks?
The wide receiver void is one that certainly favors the Orange. While SU didn’t have an All-American wideout this year for the first time in the last three seasons, the receiver position shows to be very replaceable year-to-year. While the Mountaineers seemingly have an NFL-caliber wideout every single year, replacing skill is much more difficult than finding another piece to fit a scheme. The latter is exactly what Syracuse is looking to do in 2019 and pretty much already has. Taj Harris proved to be an electrifying receiver in his freshman season and looks to build on a 40 catch, 565 yard rookie campaign. That yardage set a Syracuse freshman record. The Orange recycles receivers left and right and doesn’t need an NFL-caliber guy on the roster for the offense to thrive. A bevy of players stepped up in 2018 like Harris, Custis, Sean Riley and Nykeim Johnson. As impressive as Harris was in his first year, he may not even be the best wideout in his class. Ed Hendrix was forced to redshirt this year after a season-ending injury derailed his freshman campaign. The point is, the Orange losing Custis won’t be as detrimental as West Virginia losing Jennings.
Now the most underrated of the absences for West Virginia was Yodny Cajuste at left tackle. I ultimately believe he was the domino that triggered the other WVU players to sit. You can’t blame Will Grier for not wanting to play when the guy in charge of his blind side isn’t going to be there, especially when he is the co-Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year. And if Grier isn’t playing, then how will Jennings improve his stock with a backup at the helm? Anyway, without Cajuste, Kendall Coleman continued to show the country why he was snubbed from an all-ACC nod by racking up three sacks on the night. Cajuste’s backup in the game was JuCo transfer Kelby Wickline. The drop off is always going to be apparent when you go from an All-American level talent to a former JuCo guy.
Ironically, Syracuse could also turn to a JuCo guy to replace Cody Conway, who was a mainstay at left tackle by starting the final 30 games of his Orange career. SU added Darius Tisdale to its 2019 recruiting class out of Lackawanna College. Syracuse currently lists freshman Carlos Vettorello as the backup to Conway on the depth chart, but it would not be shocking to see Dino Babers and company opt for more experience on the line and capitalize on Tisdale’s shorter career window. It’s also worth mentioning that SU’s top recruit in the Class of 2018 Qadir White could fill that void after sitting out all of this season to redshirt. Regardless, this spot is the biggest question mark heading into 2019 for the Orange.
The bowl win was fun. It was a heck of a way to close out the remarkable careers of Dungey, Conway and Custis who all suffered through a crusade of four win teams in order to become a part of just the seventh double digit win squad in the program’s 117 seasons. But West Virginia’s lack of personnel should serve as this offseason’s warning of what could come if the Orange doesn’t tighten the screws at its newly vacant positions.