A little under a year ago, we stated that Syracuse’s wide receivers, offensive line, and defensive backs would be key factors in whether the Orange had a successful 2022. Two of those groups were relatively successful- Oronde Gadsden’s emergence and a tenacious pass defense were major contributors toward SU’s 6-0 start. But mediocre blocking led to both Garrett Shrader and Sean Tucker getting banged up, resulting in a 1-6 crumble to the finish line. One year later, Syracuse finds itself entering a crossroads-type season for the future of both the program and the conference. Here are the three most important position groups for 2023 should the Orange want to make their way back to a bowl game.
How does SU replace a legend? That’s the question we’re asking ourselves as opening night draws nearer. Tucker is the program’s single-season rushing yard leader and is beloved by fans for his on-field performance and postgame tweets. Replacing him is going to be no small task. After some seemingly unnecessary offseason drama, LeQuint Allen is the presumed candidate to replace him from the jump. Beyond that, there are a lot of unproven names. Even Allen could still be considered unproven- despite a strong performance in the Pinstripe Bowl, that’s a very small sample size in a game that wasn’t exactly considered important by Syracuse’s best players. 2021 proved that a one-dimensional offense gets teams nowhere. The Orange need a running back to burst onto the scene to prevent a similar scenario.
There were many culprits behind SU’s 1-6 collapse, but a porous run defense might have been the biggest one of all. In four of those six losses, Syracuse gave up 200 or more rushing yards, including a mind-blowing 293 to Clemson. As bad as that penalty was, do you think that might have made an impact? It’s not as if there isn’t experience among the group- Caleb Okechukwu, Kevon Darton, and Terry Lockett all saw significant chunks of playing time last season. But, all of them as well as the lesser-known names among the defensive line need to step it up and play more consistently over all 12 games (13 if we’re lucky). Pittsburgh showed that even if you don’t have a top-tier running back playing (the Panthers were without Izzy Abanikanda), an ineffective run defense is one that can be feasted on.
This is the only position group to make a repeat appearance on this year’s list, and the reasoning behind it isn’t exactly positive. Gone are Garrett Williams, Duce Chestnut, and Ja’Had Carter to either the NFL or the transfer portal. Dino Babers didn’t mince words when talking about his decimated secondary at ACC Kickoff last week. But, SU’s head man also identified Justin Barron as someone who has stepped up as a leader through the offseason. If that translates to in-game performance, that is much-needed good news. Other than Barron, there is a lot of raw talent in guys like Alijah Clark, Nebraska transfer Jaeden Gould, Jason Simmons, and Jeremiah Wilson. The question is, can they fill the void left by the departed?
Five months from now, if the Orange did not take part in a bowl game, don’t be surprised if a lack of strong play from these three position groups is a big reason why. The opposite is also true if Syracuse makes back-to-back bowl games for the first time in Babers’ tenure.