As we venture towards the Summer, the flow of Syracuse sports news has slowed to a trickle. SU men’s hoops has been off for some time and doesn’t appear to be making any more big plays towards its 2022 recruiting class, and the men’s lacrosse team is a game away from ending a disappointing year. At least women’s lacrosse is good.
The recent rise in the mercury means that SU football’s summer practices are nearing. From wideout transfer CJ Hayes to returning talents in Sean Tucker and Mikel Jones, there’s going to be plenty of things to keep your eye on as the calendar inches towards Fall. However, there are some concrete things Syracuse will have to sort out in ’22, regardless of who wins or loses certain position battles.
1. Third Down Efficiency
Sean Tucker deservedly grabbed plenty of headlines in his second season running the football and Garrett Shrader established himself as a serviceable signal-caller, but talent alone couldn’t save the Orange offense from struggling in a key area: third downs. 3rd-and-whatever situations have been a consistent problem for Dino Babers dating back to 2019 when his offense began its post-Eric Dungey comedown, and the numbers bear it out.
Last year, SU converted just 33.1% of its third downs and ranked dead last in the ACC in that category by over a full percentage point. There’s more than one reason why the Orange were so bad in such situations, but note that SU ranked last in 2020 at 26.1% and ninth in 2019 at 38.0%. Under two different quarterbacks, different offensive personnel, and two different offensive coordinators, third downs have been a bugaboo. With new offensive coordinator Robert Anae in the fold and minimal skill position turnover, the onus for ‘Cuse over the summer should be to get itself together on third downs and maximize its efficiency.
2. Receiving Production
One of the big reasons that Syracuse struggled on third downs that went unmentioned above is that its receiving corps disappointed in 2021. Nobody was ever going to mistake Anthony Queeley and Courtney Jackson for Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, but the Orange receiving room didn’t produce for a few different reasons.
The first disadvantage that struck SU’s receivers was that the team transitioned to a ground-and-pound outfit virtually on the fly. After Tommy DeVito struggled mightily against Rutgers last September, Garrett Shrader took over the starting job at quarterback against Liberty and never relinquished it. Shrader’s skillset as a runner caused the offense to lurch into a more option-heavy scheme. The change may have contributed to the transfer of former wideout Taj Harris, whose short ’21 season in Orange – 16 catches for 171 yards and no scores – looked like a disappointment even before his departure.
In Harris’ wake, SU’s inexperienced receiving group couldn’t separate itself without a No. 1 option, but don’t blame drops for the issues: according to Pro Football Focus, the quartet of Queeley, Jackson, Devaughn Cooper, and Damien Alford combined for just seven drops. Only Sharod Johnson (five drops) struggled in that category.
Finally, Syracuse’s refusal to use its tight ends over the past two seasons bordered on negligence. ‘Cuse’s tight ends received only 13 targets all of last season. It’s probably why Luke Benson is now at Georgia Tech, and the only real culprit is the incompetence of former offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, whose two-year stint produced six wins and 11 different games with under 300 yards of total offense.
3. Special Teams
Of all the things on this list, special teams may be the one area that deserves the least amount of concern. Syracuse’s special teams are typically very good, and last year’s aberration is probably owed to some bad luck and the lack of an actual special teams coordinator, which has since been remedied with the hiring of former NFLer and longtime guru Bob Ligashesky.
Former Lou Groza Award winner Andre Szmyt’s return for one more year of kicking duties came as a pleasant surprise, but he’ll have to get himself right after missing five field goals last year. Those shanks include a 19-yarder against Virginia Tech and a potential game-tier against Clemson during a shaky-looking campaign.
Ligashesky will also have to work on SU’s kickoffs and punting, which ranked in the bottom half of the ACC. James Williams and Ian Hawkins split punting duties last year, and neither one was effective – the Orange ranked dead last in the conference in yards-per-punt. For a team that finished a play here or a yard there from a bowl berth, every yard and kick counts. Ligashesky and Babers should focus on emphasizing that point this season.
4. Decision Making
Finally, the most intangible and frustrating part of SU’s failures last season came down to decision-making from its sideline. It’s also the most difficult thing to critique from a media perspective because coaches can always insist that those who write about games aren’t present on the sidelines. To that point, you could retort that those who write don’t have to be on the sideline. Too many times last year, Dino Babers and the SU staff bungled several choices so poorly that it made Jameis Winston look like a regular Magnus Carlsen.
In seriousness, SU’s troubling habit of leaving fans grumbling about decision-making as they headed to the exits became a recurring problem. A painful three-game losing streak in October that saw the Orange fall by three points each time featured a new point of contested debate every game.
Whether it was a confusing penalty acceptance and botched two-point conversion against Wake Forest, a controversial field goal call against Clemson, or confounding fourth-down decisions against Florida State, Dino Babers had to fend off the hounds on a weekly basis. Stutters from the sideline would have been less scrutinized in the end if Syracuse had come away with any one of those games and ultimately gotten to a bowl, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the image of a disorganized SU sideline took hold and desperately needs to be dispelled for good this Fall.