After such a dismal 2020 season, it’s been somewhat surprising to see how much intrigue there is surrounding the storylines of Syracuse football. We’re just a few weeks away from the season opener at Ohio on September 4th, and just a reminder: it’s okay to get excited. If you’re a Syracuse fan, it’s interesting to wait and see how all the pieces we’ve talked about fall into place. Who plays at QB? How will the defense look? Is this the year things finally get back on track?
We don’t have the verdicts to those questions yet, but a large part of the answer to that last one falls on a Texan whose name has mostly escaped the scrutiny of headlines this offseason. That would be Sterlin Gilbert, Syracuse’s offensive coordinator since the start of 2020.
When Gilbert was hired to replace former OC Mike Lynch in January 2020, the move appeared to be one centered around scheme familiarity. Gilbert was Dino Babers’ offensive coordinator at Eastern Illinois from 2012-13 and Bowling Green back in 2014 and boasted extensive knowledge of his system.
If that was the case, familiarity was prioritized over prior success, and the results on the field showed in year one.
Gilbert has bounced around the college landscape from place to place, particularly since he and Dino parted ways. The San Angelo, TX native hasn’t spent more than two years at a program since his collegiate debut (his last three-season tenure was at Lake View High School, TX from 2008-10). He’s been an offensive coordinator somewhere every season since 2012, but his results have been mixed.
In 2016, Gilbert’s Texas Longhorns offense finished 5-7 and 6th in the Big 12 in points scored despite a 2,000-yard season from RB D’Onta Foreman. The very next year, Gilbert took over a University of South Florida offense that finished 4th in the nation in points scored and returned its starting quarterback from the prior year. By year two, USF had dropped to 71st in the country in points scored, and Gilbert was off again, this time to be the head coach of McNeese State. After just one year, he took the Syracuse job in early 2020.
We all know what happened next. Syracuse finished last in the ACC in points scored and every major yardage category. Gilbert’s stagnant-looking system was criticized online by former SU athletes, and the team won just a single game. SU’s OC can’t be blamed for freak injuries, opt-outs, and quarterback carousel, but the effort was ripe for some criticism.
Over time, it’s become clear Gilbert’s system works best when he has talented runners. He had an All-AAC talent in Quinton Flowers at USF and a stable of solid backs at Bowling Green that racked up over 2,400 rushing yards in a bowl-win season. In year two at SU, it’s time for Gilbert to show something now that he has an emergent Sean Tucker and some genuinely talented receivers to work with.
At the end of the day, Dino Babers hitched his team to his old OC and the “ol’ reliable” system in 2020, and now he – and the program – are along for the ride, hoping now is the time for Gilbert to swim instead of sink in year two.