When Dino Babers came to Syracuse, his initial recruiting class felt more like step-sons than blood family. They weren’t his guys, they were Scott Shafer’s. But when the 2017 cycle came around, Babers finally got the prospects he sought out to fit his system.
Now that those players have a season and a half under their belts, we’re starting to see why Babers is such a special recruiter and the potential for the Orange with the right players in his system. The final five minutes plus overtime on Saturday was the beginning of what will be a promising couple of years for this Syracuse football program.
SU’s Class of 2017 featured 25 prospects (including JuCo transfers) and ranked 11th in the ACC and 54th in the country, per 247Sports. Among them, seven put their fingerprint on the game by either going above and beyond or knowing their role and delivering when the moment called for it.
For starters, Tommy DeVito just made Babers’ week a lot tougher. Although the head coach wouldn’t anoint a starter for next week against NC State, the redshirt freshman is surely the favorite amongst the fans after guiding an improbable comeback over UNC. DeVito’s 181 yards and 3 touchdowns in 5:07 of game time plus overtimes will be tough to overlook for next week.
But DeVito wasn’t the only factor. While he’ll be the one garnering all the praise because he is the quarterback, what fellow redshirt freshman Ifeatu Melifonwu did was the defensive equivalent of DeVito’s performance. The cornerback came in after Christopher Frederick’s nagging injuries forced him out of the game permanently around halftime and came up with 4 pass break ups, all while mostly guarding the Tar Heels’ best receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams. After pacing the way with 6 catches in the first half, Melifonwu spearheaded the attack to hold Ratliff-Williams to just 3 in the second half and overtime.
Some of the other difference makers were Ryan Guthrie, Nykeim Johnson, Alton Robinson, Chris Elmore and Ravian Pierce. In that group of five there was the team leader in tackles, the recipients of the overtime forcing and game winning touchdowns, the runner of a crucial goal line touchdown and a pair of quarterback hurries. It’d be hard to argue that the Class of 2017 didn’t win this ballgame.
But Saturday’s game was actually decided during the weeks leading up to the Class of 2017 signing period. Other Power Five schools came knocking on DeVito’s door, most of them being better football destinations and chances to shine on a bigger stage. Likewise, Melifonwu received some late attention from Jim Harbaugh and Michigan just before the signing period. But all the credit goes to Dino Babers. He got these two to buy in to a team that had little recent success and lacked the glitz and glamour of these other programs. Without that convincing or the intel to find these diamonds in the rough, Syracuse absolutely loses this game against North Carolina.
Saturday’s win showed the fruits of trusting Babers’ process. There is now living proof of his vision from when he was hired back in the winter of 2015. Babers found a way to find guys who were all three star recruits or lower and fit them into his system. Some of those players eventually do sprout above that initial grade, like DeVito, and become highly regarded recruits. He maximizes their talent with his strategy and the players utilize their strengths to mesh with the system.
Arguably the most impressive part of Saturday was the fact that despite there being so much youth on the field, nobody shied away from the moment. Being down a touchdown, despite all the experience limitations, didn’t make these players crack or become passive. DeVito came out gunslinging, Melifonwu wasn’t afraid of the Tar Heels’ top target and Johnson trusted his speed for the big moment. That’s a sign of maturity in these young players, who all have at least two more years of eligibility.