The blame goes to a combination of the transfer portal, NFL Draft, and graduating students, but to say Syracuse Football lost a lot this season would be a massive understatement. If the Orange are to make consecutive bowl games for the first time in a decade, players up and down the roster must step up. Some more than others. Based on what we saw a year ago and after a hectic offseason, three players in particular fit that mold.
WR DAMIEN ALFORD
Last season, Oronde Gadsden was SU’s first, second, and third receiving option. That cannot happen again, out of team need and defenses being more prepared for the All-ACC First Teamer. Devaughn Cooper, who emerged as a decent secondary receiving threat late in the year, is gone, so who could potentially help out both Gadsden and Garrett Shrader? Those expectations fell on Alford a year ago, and they’re falling on him again in 2023.
Alford’s deep-ball prowess is what, once again, has media and fans talking about his potential. The Canadian has four touchdowns combined over the last two seasons- the shortest one has been 45 yards. Now, the question becomes can his game become multi-faceted? He can obviously go deep, but can he run the shorter and medium-length routes at an effective level? Adding those skills would not only benefit his game, but Shrader’s, Gadsden’s, and the rest of the receiving corps.
DB ALIJAH CLARK
No position group enters the year more decimated than the secondary. Garrett Williams is now an Arizona Cardinal, and both Ja’Had Carter and Duce Chestnut took their talents elsewhere in college football. That creates an immediate opening for someone to take on the role of leader of the secondary, and Clark seems poised to potentially do just that.
We won’t soon forget his unsportsmanlike penalty that sealed the deal in the Pinstripe Bowl, but lost in that are a pair of pass breakups, 2.5 TFL, and a fourth-place finish on the team in total tackles. That’s not too shabby when the above players got more attention. You would certainly hope that with a leadership role, stuff like that back-breaking penalty would be nonfactors. Clark showed the potential to be the secondary’s alpha last season, can he tap into it?
DL CALEB OKECHUKWU
Syracuse’s run defense in its five-game losing skid a season ago was absolutely putrid. In those five defeats, the Orange gave up 293, 246, 161 (to a Pitt team with its first-stringer injured), 230, and 212 rushing yards. Entering 2022, the defensive line was a group of worry, and it showed down the stretch. That doesn’t mean Okechukwu didn’t emerge as one of SU’s premier defensive players.
Okechukwu had a team-leading seven sacks, and he and Marlowe Wax were the only Orange with double-digit tackles for loss. And who can forget his pick-six against Purdue? Where the DC native needs to step up in is his ability to make his teammates better. One man isn’t going to solve Syracuse’s run defense issues. He has to be the catalyst in doing so, but can he take some pressure off the developing defensive linemen? Whether he does could go a long way.
The schedule alone is going to make getting back to a bowl game immensely difficult. Factor in all the losses on the field and it’ll be even more so. By no means is it limited to just these three, but Alford, Clark, and Okechukwu have to improve their production if SU is to go bowling again.