February 1, 2017 was supposed to be a turning point in Syracuse football history. Dino Babers had just wrapped up his first season and gone 4-8 with Scott Shafer’s roster. Babers had immediately injected energy into the program, like gulping down a 5-Hour Energy. He was far more quotable than the buttoned-down Shafer, and instead of playing a ground-and-pound offense, Babers had a marketable commodity. He would focus on the passing attack, and use the indoor confines of the Carrier Dome to exploit a market inefficiency. Orange would be the new fast.
It was an obvious inherent advantage for SU football that was never utilized by old school ham-and-egger coaches. Coach P was cut from an ’80s style of college football. While trying to implement a West Coast passing system, Greg Robinson was an overall imbecile. Doug Marrone was an old offensive lineman who wanted to win the trenches. Shafer was a glorified gym teacher, looking to follow in Marrone’s footsteps.
Babers smartly realized the aging, greying Carrier Dome didn’t have to be a negative. While other stadiums had blue skies and new ribbon boards donated by boosters, the Dome was a warehouse without air conditioning. But it meant Babers could go recruit kids from the south and convince them they’d never have to play in cold weather. Babers once told me his sales pitch in the ACC is that every home game is indoors, and almost every road game is in warm weather. Aside from the rare trip to BC or Pitt in November, SU football played in perfect conditions all year.
That meant Babers had a sales pitch for the weapons he needed. How to make a pinball offense? Recruit fast, athletic skill positions from states that were teeming with them, like Florida and Georgia. Then land one big-armed QB to get them the ball. Throw it 40-45 times a game, the program would score points, collect stats to keep the recruits happy, and sell tickets. A 6-6 season seemed far more palatable when you’re scoring 38 points per game instead of 17.
Babers had that quarterback. On Signing Day ’17 DeVito famously put his signature on a LOI to Syracuse on ESPNU. This would be the first of many days like this. Wins would come, recruits would follow. DeVito had verbally committed to the Orange within the first four months of Babers’ tenure and stayed on. A 4-star QB from prep powerhouse Don Bosco (NJ), he was rated as the 13th best pro-style signal-caller in the country. He signed officially with SU after a 4-8 season, with the middling days of the Shafer Era in the recent past. He wasn’t fazed. He was the dawn of a new era.
After DeVito’s announcement to enter the transfer portal, the end to his story on the Hill is depressing. He bounced between injured and ineffective. The offensive line was a mess. Dino has had just one winning season. And ultimately Babers was faced with his own coaching mortality this season. He brought in Garrett Shrader because sole reliance on DeVito to win enough games this year was too big a risk. Babers tried to delicately walk through the QB race. He knew he needed to support DeVito as much as possible publicly. If Shrader was going to win the job, he needed DeVito to lose it on the field. Dino said all the right things, but when rubber-hit-road, the staff let Shrader roll. They lost that same faith in DeVito.
In today’s landscape it’s never in a vacuum, and it’s never just on the field. College coaches need to build trust with high school staffs, especially ones that pump out FBS talent. After DeVito’s crash and transfer, it’s fair to ask what the effect is at Don Bosco. Do those coaches feel SU never surrounded DeVito with the right support to win? Will they steer players away from SU? Will rival college coaches remind QB recruits what happened to DeVito? Will other high school parents and players look at the DeVito story and conclude Syracuse is a bad situation?
SU would love to get more studs from Don Bosco and the rest of the New Jersey catholic powers. They send talent to Penn State, Ohio State, Notre Dame and others. If SU can win a 4-star recruit or two from Jersey, that’s enough to change a program. DeVito could’ve been a key to unlock that.
The obvious reality is that if DeVito soared with SU, winning 8-10 games a year and earning bowl game MVP honors every year while putting up huge numbers, it would be an enormous recruiting boom for Babers. The flip side is worst case scenario. But Babers is trying to win games, and DeVito wasn’t doing enough of that. You can’t bury your locker room in losing just to save a recruiting pipeline. You won’t have a job to take advantage of that pipeline. It’s a disappointing end to a once thrilling story. The turning point never came. February 1, 2017 ended up being just another day.