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The State of the Syracuse Football Program

There’s a series done on The Athletic that is very fun to follow every offseason called “The State of the Program Series.” In these pieces, authors that cover various teams for the site preview and layout where the program sits and where it’s going. Essentially, it’s a team preview for the upcoming season and tells you the key players on offense, defense, special teams, and reviews the recent recruiting history and coaching changes. This year, SU wasn’t deemed important enough to even receive coverage so we’ll do it here on the Fizz. Be sure to check out our takeaways from last year’s version of this article over on The Athletic.

Dino Babers enters season number seven on the hill this fall. Heading into the 2022 campaign, Babers claims a 29-43 record overall and a 15-35 spot in ACC play. Obviously, those numbers are quite disappointing considering the fact that Syracuse is paying enough money for Babers possess a $5,000,000-$10,000,000 buyout at the end of this year. A coach who can’t post even just two winning seasons in six years isn’t worth even $1,000,000 in today’s day and age of college football.

So right now, Syracuse is kind of stuck. SU doesn’t want to drop the bag on a coach that never consistently delivered acceptable results. On top of that, if John Wildhack decides to send Babers on his merry way, he’s going to have to fork over another exorbitant sum to another coach. At this point, Syracuse apparently can’t even afford to hire a nutrition for its entire athletic department.

Instead of going down road one, SU chose road two. This paved trail included revamping the coaching staff and investing further in the program. The Orange said goodbye to guys like former offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, defensive line coach Vince Reynolds, and tight ends coach Reno Ferri. With the vacancies on staff, Babers and company brought in some class A hires in Robert Anae (OC) and Jason Beck (QB’s) from Virginia. The former Cavalier duo revolutionized the offense in Charlottesville and were brought in to do the same on the Hill.

This is the final game of poker for Babers. If Syracuse can’t win with the most talent it has had in Babers’ tenure and some of the brightest offensive and defensive minds on its sideline, then the wrong man is in charge. This season is not the make or break year for the Orange, but they should be all in once 2023 rolls in. What’s imperative is that SU shows signs of improvement and evokes even the slightest bit of hope into a fanbase that wants to believe.

Offense

Since Babers arrived in 2016, offense was his brand. The former Bowling Green head man wanted to play fast and run past everyone. Six years later, that approach no longer seems to be engrained into the unit. Now, it’s in the hands of a veteran play caller and brilliant offensive mind in Anae.

What Anae is taking over is a Syracuse offense that finished 10th in scoring offense last year (24.9 PPG) and 11th in total offense (366.5 YPG). If you dive deeper into those numbers, you find a very titled seesaw. On the one side, you have Sean Tucker and conference’s top rushing unit (213.5 YPG). On the other end, there’s the worst passing offense in the ACC (153 YPG).

The discussion all offseason has been that Anae is instituting a pass happy offense and bringing in an “air raid” system. With that said, Babers and his new OC are working collectively to find the happy balance between the option, ground and pound attack and the aerial attack.

The man at the controls of this new offense, to start at least, is Garrett Shrader. The dual-threat quarterback definitely hit the ground running finishing second in the ACC with 14 rushing scores. The issue in 2021 was consistency through the air. The Mississippi State transfer ranked in the bottom third of conference signal callers in passing yards (1,445 yards), passing touchdowns (9), completion percentage (53%), and efficiency (113.7).

So you’ve got a returning starter that is far from a question running the ball, but has struggled to push the ball down the field through the air. And now SU brings in a coach who wants to throw darts all over the board. Perhaps a new scheme can benefit Shrader as a passer, that might be the most important question of the season.

Other than Shrader, SU has JaCobian Morgan, Justin Lamson, Dan Vilari, Carlos Del-Rio Wilson, and Luke MacPhail. Morgan has starting experience in the past, while Vilari saw some game action in his time at Michigan. Lamson was very impressive this spring but will miss this season with an injury. Meanwhile, Del-Rio Wilson is a young transfer from Florida who was a former four-star recruit and has drawn rave reviews in his short time at Syracuse.

Coaches changes or not, the running back room is stocked and ready to go. Sean Tucker is back and embarking on a potential Heisman campaign after leading the ACC with 1,496 yards on the ground last season. On top of that, SU nabbed an intriguing backup and solid complement to Tucker this offseason in Juwaun Price. The New Mexico State transfer has impressive film and flashed his abilities in the spring game. Rounding out the top three is true freshman Lequint Allen. Last year’s, Gatorade Player of the Year in New Jersey brings a skillset nobody else can provide on the Syracuse roster. Allen is a scat back and should have a role in the receiving game this season.

The big fellas in front of Tucker and company are also back in 2022. Four of five starters return after one of the best rushing season in Syracuse football history. Last year, SU ran for 2,562 yards which is the fifth-most prolific output in program history.

Matthew Bergeron is back to anchor the left side of the line at tackle after an All-ACC campaign last year. Syracuse gained four yards per carry running behind the Canadien last year which was the best mark of anybody in the conference last season, according to ESPN advanced stats.

Alongside Bergeron are Kalan Ellis, Chris Bleich, Dakota Davis, and Carlos Vettorello. There have been reports that the specific positions have been mixing and matching. From what we’ve hard, we believe the final five will read as follows: Bergeron (LT), Ellis (LG), Bleich (C), Davis (RG), and Vettorello (RT).

This might be the best line that Babers has had in his time at Syracuse. On top of an experienced and solid starting five, SU has guys like Josh Ilaoa, Darius Tisdale, and Enrique Cruz who provide depth and can step into an empty slot. The icing on the cake is that Mike Schmidt is back for his second season coaching the OL and pioneering the run game. Year one wasn’t too shabby obviously, don’t expect a drop off in 2022.

On the outside, Syracuse has a lot of options but those players are just names. Anthony Queeley, Damien Alford, Devaughn Cooper, Umari Hatcher, Oronde Gadsden, those are all just people. None of those receivers have done much of anything to separate themselves and become known commodities. Queeley’s production dipped form 37 receptions in 2021 to just 15 in 2022. Alford is a physical specimen but hasn’t had his potential tapped into yet which is a problem. Cooper had his best season of college football yet in his sixth season last year with 21 catches for 199 yards but that’s not WR3 production level. Hatcher and Gadsden were just freshman and haven’t had the chance to make much of an impact yet bit have promise.

The one pass catcher that you trust to produce this fall is Courtney Jackson. The redshirt-sophomore broke out increasing his 10 catches in 2020 to 37 in 2021 and receiving yardage from 69 to 388. The Pennsylvania native seems to be Shrader’s security blanket in a passing offense that was only effective between the hashes last year. Every gunslinger needs that go-to guy in a situation where you need to spark something, Jackson is that dude.

What Syracuse needs is the names, the Queeley’s, the Hatcher’s, the Gadsden’s, the Cooper’s, the Alford’s, the Da’Marcus Adams’, the CJ Hayes’, and the Trebor Pena’s of the world to be more than just letters meshed together.

At tight end and h-back Syracuse figures to be solid. Max Mang and Steve Mahar should earn the bulk of reps at tight end. Mang played a considerable amount last year with Luke Benson in and out of the lineup, expect the German to team up with Chris Elmore in the wing blocking. Elmore returns for year six on the Hill and will be a massive weapon for Anae and Schmidt to get creative with. Mahar is a bit of a wild card. The former big time New York recruit has the size to be a nice two-way threat if SU wants to use him as a receiver. Last season, UVA’s starting tight end tallied 44 receptions for 598 yards and eight touchdowns.

Key Stat to Know: Syracuse has really struggled to score when it reaches the red zone recently. In 2018, SU’s 10-3 magical season, the Orange finished 2nd in the ACC with an 88.5% scoring rate inside the 20 yard line. That performance has been followed with dismal results: 12th in 2019 (76.1%), 14th out of 15 teams in 2020 (69.6%), and 13th in 2021 (76.5%). If SU wants to win more games, it needs to produce more success deep in its opponent’s territory.

Defense

While there isn’t much continuity from a leadership standpoint on the offensive side of the ball, the story is different for the defense. Tony White is geared up and ready to rumble for year three leading the ‘Cuse D. The 3-3-5 experiment has definitely been a success at Syracuse since its inception in 2020. The Orange showed big improvement in many categories in the matter of just one year. Syracuse improved its scoring defense from 11th (32.7 PPG) to 6th (26.3 PPG) and total defense from a last place finish (463.9 YPG) to 2nd (330.3 YPG). Is there another big step that SU can take in 2022, well that would mean this unit is scary good.

The returning production is really solid everywhere…expect in the trenches. The Orange d-line room got absolutely cleared out this offseason. Cody Roscoe, Kingsley Jonathan, Josh Black, McKinley Williams, and Curtis Harper (transfer) are all gone on after contributing in 2021. Now the cupboard is very dry and not much, if anything was done to address it in the offseason.

Syracuse brings back a very experienced piece in end Caleb Okechukwu. The fifth-year lineman has logged time in 28 games with 35 tackles and a pair of sacks to show for it. Next to the the Washington D.C. native is Terry Lockett. The true sophomore plays the defensive tackle/nose tackle role for this defense. However, considering the fact that Massachusetts native stands just 6’3, 270 that’s a bit problematic. Lockett had his hand in the dirt for eleven games one year ago but is the only experienced player at tackle.

Other than Okechukwu and Lockett is a massive vacany. Who can fill it? Well that’s what we still need to find out. Steve LInton, Jatius Geer, and Denis Jaquez seem to be the three most likely options. However, Linton has been dealing with injuries his whole career, Geer ran with the one’s in the spring game but is just a redshirt-freshman, and Jaquez is a true freshman still getting acclimated to the college game. The defensive line is the biggest question mark that the 2022 Syracuse football team possesses.

One position group that is far from a question is the linebacker room. This is by far the best LB core Babers has had in his time at Syracuse and is being talked about as one of the best in the ACC. The top three of Mikel Jones, Stefon Thompson, and Marlowe Wax return to hold down the second level. Jones turned in a first team All-ACC campaign last year and is expected to do the same this season after spurning the NFL. Thompson started all 12 games last year and is receiving some professional hype entering his third season. Wax broke onto the scene as a consistent starter on the outside and is proving why he chose to play linebacker in college rather than running back. Jones (110), Thompson (79), and Wax (60) went one, two, three in tackles for SU last year and probably will again this season.

When you think of Syracuse football in recent history, you think of the defensive backs. SU has had a lot of success recruiting and developing at safety and corner in the past few years and that’s no different in 2022. Garrett Williams had pro potential last year but is returning to improve his stock. Additionally, Duce Chestnut was everything as advertised in his true freshman season. The corner tandem joined forces for 18 pass breakups and three picks. Chestnut and Williams is one of the best duos the ACC has to offer this year.

Other potential contributors in the cornerback room for the ‘Cuse are Alijah Clark, Isaiah Johnson, Jeremiah Wilson, and Gregory Delaine. Clark and Johnson are both transfer but with different trajectories. Clark is a transfer from Rutgers that is very close with Chestnut and logged some time last year with the Scarlet Knights. The former top-250 recruit has an impressive skillset that could flash as early as this season. Johnson is a transfer from Dartmouth who SU added for depth purposes. The former Ivy Leaguer hasn’t played in a contest since 2019 but does have previous experience playing at the collegiate level.

Wilson and Delaine are both true freshman that could be the future of the corner room in tandem with Clark who is just in his second year. Wilson enrolled early and played a lot of snaps in the SU spring game with mixed results. Delaine is someone people may have forgotten about. The three-star recruit was a someone Syracuse flipped from Georgia Tech on National Signing Day. The Florida native had an impressive offer sheet with many power five programs. Keep an eye on Delaine to perhaps see the field in a nickel capacity.

Things aren’t as set in stone at the safety positions, but that doesn’t come with a lack of solid options. Veteran Eric Coley is back for his sixth season on the Hill after starting six games at safety in 2021. Additionally, Jason Simmons Jr. looks to build off of a successful pilot season at Syracuse if you will. The New Mexico State transfer got the starting nod in ten games in the back end last season. Coley and Simmons figure to be the two playing centerfield when SU opens up against Louisville in September.

The fifth player in the secondary is Justin Barron, the incumbent starter at rover. The rover spot is a safety/linebacker hybrid that can fill the box or cover behind. White and company worked magic with Barron last season and it paid dividends. The Connecticut native converted from wide receiver to the secondary and was an immediate impact. The 6’4, 200 pound athlete is a perfect fit for the position and should get even better after starting the final nine games of Syracuse’s season in 2022.

Also in the safety room though are Ja’Had Carter, Rob Hanna, Bralyn Oliver, and Aman Greenwood. Carter has logged 18 starts in his first two years at Syracuse but missed time last year with an injury. The Virginia native could definitely win one of those starting safety spots. Hanna is another player that impressed in 2020 but faded last year. The rover lost his starting gig to Justin Barron after three games and may not ever get it back. Oliver was. a big transfer get from Louisville and could definitely carve out a role in the nickel spot after impressing with good coverage and a pick in the SU spring game. Greenwood started seven games in 2020 but has really struggled with consistency and seems to have lost the trust of the coaching staff to hold an impactful role.

Key Stat to Know: While the Syracuse defense was much improved from one season ago in many categories, it drastically regressed in one. SU ranked 129th out of 130 teams averaging with 0.5 takeaways per game last year. This disappointing finish comes off the heels of a three year string where all the Orange did was take the ball away. The ‘Cuse finished T-4th in 2018 (2.3/game), 3rd in 2019 (2.2/game), and 11th in 2020 (2.2/game). In a year in which Syracuse’s defensive line figures to struggle and as a result make the entire unit take a potential step back, SU needs to do what it can to take the ball away from its opponents.

Special Teams

Boy, oh boy was this an issue for Syracuse last season. Whether it was SU having punts go as far as a someone throwing a boulder or Andre Szmyt forgetting how to kick of a football, or Dino Babers calling back to back timeouts in critical game situations, the Orange had a ton of issues in this department last season.

To quell those problems, Syracuse hired one of the best special teams leaders out there in Bob Ligashesky. The unit’s coordinator has been coaching for 37 years and should immediately bring stability.

The Orange returns Andre Szmyt at placekicker after an underwhelming 2022 season. The former Lou Groza winner has really taken steps back since his freshman season and was the sole contributor in a 13th place finish in the ACC for SU last season with a 9-14 (64%) effort.

Punting wasn’t much better for Syracuse. The Orange were the worst team in the ACC when it came to booting. SU finished dead last averaging just 33 yards per punt which is just terrible, most of you out there could probably throw it farther than that. Syracuse brings back James Williams and Ian Hawkins who will battle for the starting job and look to improve on an awful 2022 showing.

Recruiting

2018 > 51st (10th ACC, 85.27 AVG ranking)

2019 > 57th (11th ACC, 84.83 AVG ranking)

2020 > 56th (9th ACC, 84.02 AVG ranking)

2021 > 60th (13th ACC, 84.41 AVG ranking)

2022 > 68th (12th ACC, 85.33 AVG ranking)

Syracuse has consistently towards to bottom of the power five and the ACC in recruiting. Of course, SU is a difficult place to recruit due to the lack of nearby talent, lack of resources, etc. The fact that the Orange have posted one winning season in the last six years definitely doesn’t help either. However, Syracuse has a solid job bringing in uncovered gems from southern states like Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia. What SU needs to continue to improve is its in-state recruiting footprint.

Syracuse hasn’t secured a commitment from a top two NY recruit in any of its classes from 2018-2022. That trend continued to 2023 with the commitments of Dillon Fontus and Tyriq Blanding to other schools. You can’t realistically expect SU to turn in top 45 recruiting classes, but you should expect them to lock down its state and hover around the ten spot in the ACC. On top of all of that, talent retention and development become of extreme importance.

The state of the Syracuse football program is one of uncertainty. That could change in 2022, but odds are it wont. The schedule SU has is one of the toughest in the country so immediate positive returns on investment may be tough to see from a win-loss perspective. However, come 2023, all answers to where this program stands and where its headed will come to light.

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The Fizz is owned, edited and operated by Damon Amendolara. D.A. is an ’01 Syracuse graduate from the Newhouse School with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.

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