Syracuse football finally gets a well-deserved break this week in the form of a bye. It might’ve come a little later than Dino Babers would like, but the Orange now get some time off. Now that we’ve seen the team play nine games, it seems appropriate that we give this year’s squad some grades based on what we’ve seen so far.
This grade might seem a little harsh considering SU is just one win away from a bowl following last year’s 1-10 season. However, it’s impossible to ignore that they should be at least a game or two better than what they are. Jim Boeheim is right in saying we should appreciate this team’s overachievement – but some of Dino Babers’ decisions have rightly deserved questioning and second-guessing. Some head-scratching time management sequences and strange fourth down decisions have haunted the Orange, and those issues come from the sideline.
These were unfortunately present during SU’s three consecutive three-point losses against Florida State, Wake Forest, and Clemson back in October. The most tolerable of those losses is Wake Forest – no shame in going down in overtime against a team that entered this week ranked No. 9 – but dropped games against then-winless FSU and the worst Clemson squad in years makes last month’s struggles a jagged pill to swallow.
That being said, Syracuse has scored impressive, feel-good wins against Liberty and Virginia Tech this year thanks to a team that runs its gameplans well and plays hard until the whistle. Last week, the Orange handled Boston College the way most expected them to. Offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert has found his footing in Year 2, and defensive coordinator Tony White’s 3-3-5 defense has turned into a sack machine. If nothing else, Babers has assuredly earned himself another year to see what he can make with a suddenly intriguing group.
This may seem like a low grade with Garrett Shrader sitting at 20 total touchdowns on the season, but I’m still little concerned about SU’s passing game. With that said, it’s clear that Shrader has a lot of ability and deserves his starting role. Former starter Tommy DeVito’s move toward the transfer portal was unsurprising, but his season was off to a dreadful start before he lost his starting gig prior to Liberty. The Orange looked one-dimensional against Ohio and awful against Rutgers back in September with DeVito at the helm. It’s not an exaggeration to say Shrader might’ve saved the season, but he hasn’t done a ton of the lifting with his arm.
DeVito isn’t the guy who has finished games 6 of 15 and 5 of 14 passing. Those lines belonged to Shrader in his first start (against Liberty) and his last (against BC). Expecting Shrader to be a high-percentage passer isn’t realistic at this point, but he’s avoided the type of negative plays that crippled this team last year by throwing just three interceptions and avoiding quite a few sacks with his legs.
Running Backs: A+
This is an incredibly easy grade to give thanks to the season put up by Sean Tucker. The freshman has 201 carries for 1,267 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. He has eight (count ‘em) 100-yard games and 6.3 yards-per-carry. The rest of Syracuse’s backs that are still on the team have combined for just 27 total carries, but does it really matter when you feature the nation’s leading rusher?
Tucker’s explosion has him just 106 yards away from breaking Joe Morris’ single-season program record set in 1979. It would be a deserved accomplishment for Syracuse’s best player and a guy who worked his way up from fourth on the depth chart at the start of the 2020 season.
Wide receivers: C-
SU’s other main offensive skill group hasn’t been nearly as good. Entering the season, wideouts Taj Harris and Anthony Queeley were expected to be key factors in the offense. Disappointingly, the top guys at an already thin position haven’t produced. Harris is now at Kentucky, and Queeley has just 12 catches on the year. You can’t blame SU’s receivers for an unexpected shift to a run-heavy offense, but their impact has been surprisingly limited. Drop problems from an inexperienced group have stalled an already-lacking passing game.
The positive to this group is the emergence of redshirt-freshman Courtney Jackson as a legitimate playmaker. Jackson currently leads the team in receptions, yards, and tacked on a punt return touchdown against Boston College.
Tight Ends: Incomplete
Every week, Syracuse continues to baffle everybody by refusing to use its tight ends. Sophomore Luke Benson has been practically invisible with just four catches on the season, and he’s been the most effective pass catcher by far. You can argue Benson and utilityman Chris Elmore’s primary role dictates that they block, but you’d figure Babers would dial up a few passes to his tight ends once in a while.
The lack of production for this group isn’t on the players. For that reason, it’s hard to give the tight ends an “F” their diminished role would usually warrant. It’s not their fault they were never passed the attendance sheet.
Offensive Line: A-
Rounding out the offense, Syracuse’s offensive line is definitely its most improved position group compared to last year. In pass protection, SU has allowed just 18 sacks in nine games. That’s a huge step up from allowing 88 between 2019-20. On the ground, the line has paved the way for 2,229 rushing yards. That total leads the ACC by a mile.
The most promising thing about the o-line is that its production has continued despite more depth challenges than any other unit on the team. Guards Chris Bleich and Darius Tisdale and right tackle Carlos Vettorello have all gone down at different points with injuries, but inexperienced plug-ins like Kalan Ellis and Josh Ilaoa have played admirably in relief. Give this group – and offensive line coach Mike Schmidt – credit for making significant progress. This may not be a true A-level group compared to some other Power 5 outfits, but we’ll give them the nod (and a nice round-up on the grade) for marked improvement.
Defensive Line: B+
It shouldn’t be surprising that Syracuse is a much better team this year than last thanks to its effective lines on both sides of the ball. This year’s SU squad absolutely reinforces every football lifer trope about “winning in the trenches”. It’s something SU seems to do with regularity thanks to a revitalized defensive front.
The bulk of the points here come from ‘Cuse’s ferocious pass rush. The program that once produced NFL All-Pro Dwight Freeney and sent two linemen to the NFL just a year ago now has its latest stud in defensive end Cody Roscoe. After his transfer from McNeese State last year, Roscoe’s 2020 saw him struggle to adjust to ACC blocking to the tune of just three sacks. This year, Roscoe has 8.0 through nine games and has been a constant source of pressure. His play has helped open things up for fellow linemen Josh Black and Kingsley Jonathan, who just had a three-sack game of his own against BC. All the pressure has helped SU lead the ACC in sacks with 33.0 through nine games.
This is a top-heavy group for Syracuse, but it’s one that has likely exceeded expectations. Sophomore Mikel Jones was a bright spot during last year’s dismal campaign, and he’s only stepped his game up this season. Second-year freshman Marlowe Wax is the new breakout energizer of this group, providing tenacity and a knack for racing in towards the football. Wax’s four sacks and 37 tackles speak to his success. Freshman Stefon Thompson (6.0 sacks) rounds out a talented trio of starters. With the aforementioned Jones being the oldest of the three as a sophomore, this is definitely a position with an exciting future.
The only thing holding ‘Cuse’s linebackers back from being an A or A+ grade group is their occasional lapses against the run. Poor games defending the ground game against Florida State and Virginia Tech have tarnished an otherwise all-around solid year.
Defensive Backs: C+
Syracuse’s defensive backs have been the weakest group out of defensive coordinator Tony White’s entire 3-3-5 unit, but not unexpectedly so. Entering the year, the new reality for SU fans was life after sending three DBs to the NFL in Andre Cisco, Trill Williams and Ifeatu Melifonwu. The results have been mixed, to be kind.
Redshirt-freshman Garrett Williams is the star of the group, but his second full season has been marred by bouts of ineffectiveness and various injuries. Highly-touted true freshman corner Duce Chestnut has been boom-or-bust but hasn’t quite maintained the high level shown in his electrifying debut against Ohio. Past the corners, inexperienced pieces like Adrian Cole, Jason Simmons, and Aman Greenwood have all had their moments, but each of those three have had plays they’d like to forget.
Special Teams: D
Finally, one of SU’s most ineffective units might be the most surprisingly bad bunch on the team. Syracuse has endured all-around bad play in its place-kicking, punting, and coverage units that have cratered its “Special Teams U” reputation.
To start, kicker Andre Szmyt simply hasn’t been the same since winning the Lou Groza Award in 2018. Szmyt’s yips this season have translated to two missed extra points and five missed field goals, including a potential last-second game-tying boot against Clemson and a 19-yard shank against Virginia Tech. Meanwhile, new punter James Williams has made life after Sterling Hofrichter and Nolan Cooney difficult. Syracuse currently ranks dead last in the ACC in yards per punt.
Other figures like Syracuse’s second-to-last ACC ranking in kickoff touchbacks and fourth-worst punt coverage have forced Dino Babers to field questions about the team’s lack of a special teams coordinator. His answers have ranged from evasive to defensive, and Syracuse still doesn’t employ anyone to oversee its specialists. The numbers suggest that they could certainly use one.
This is an overachieving group that has left some meat on the bone in close losses, but they’ve quickly become perhaps the most likeable and gritty team of Dino Babers’ tenure. Even if SU loses out, going from 1-10 to 5-7 would be a phenomenal turnaround. Qualifying for a bowl would vault this year into historic territory for a program that is always hungry for rare success.