Syracuse opened football practice this week and it sure felt good after a one-year hiatus, even just wearing shorts.
“It’s not like Christmas morning, but it’s exciting,” coach Dino Babers said. “It’s fun to see the kids ready to go. The biggest thing about this year is that we didn’t have a spring last year. No team did. We’ve got guys on our team that have game experience, which is valuable. That’s money in the bank. It makes you better. But they haven’t had the skillset that they needed to have. Now it’s time to go back and give them the tool belt.”
Syracuse is coming off one of the worst seasons in program history. The Orange finished 1-10 overall and 1-9 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, tied for last with Duke, which beat the Orange in the Carrier Dome.
“We understand what happened last year, but that team has nothing to do with what this team is going to be,” said Babers, in his sixth year with the Orange. “It is entirely a brand new day. The teams change drastically from year to year. We need to seize the day and get after it.”
Practice switches to pads on Friday and Babers said every position is up for grabs, including quarterback. Two-year starter Tommy DeVito was hurt last season and missed the final seven games, all losses, with a lower-body injury. Two other quarterbacks were knocked out of games behind a porous, injury-riddled offensive line that allowed 38 sacks, or 3.45 per game. That left the Orange ranked 118th out of 127 Bowl Subdivision teams.
One of the quarterbacks hurt was freshman JaCobian Morgan, who had two starts. He returns with classmate Dillon Markiewicz. Dual-threat Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader and true freshman Justin Lamson are also in the mix.
“Everybody’s out there competing. This is a different deal,” Babers said. “With so many guys being here (in camp), the lines are longer, you can scrimmage more, you can go up-tempo more, and guys are going to get an opportunity in game-like situations to show and prove what they can do. The best guys win.”
Syracuse also ranked near the bottom of Division I in rushing in 2020, averaging 3.16 yards per carry and 92 yards per game. Before last season began, the top two tailbacks on the depth chart — Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard — decided to opt out. That put freshman Sean Tucker at the top of the list and he delivered a solid showing, rushing for 626 yards, the third most for a true freshman in school history, and four touchdowns. Adams and Howard are back and Babers said they will start at the bottom of the depth chart.
“The cream always rises to the top,” Babers said. “Everybody that sat out, there’s no handcuffs against them. They’re allowed to go as high as they can go, but nothing’s going to be given.”
The Orange offensive line returns all four starters, including Airon Servais for a sixth season. Florida transfer Chris Bleich, a redshirt sophomore who had to sit last year after being denied a waiver to play by the NCAA, will give the unit added experience and depth.
“Most of the guys are out there and it’s good to see that group backed up,” Babers said. “It’s going to be one of the keys to our season, there’s no doubt about it. I really like where we’re going to be.”
Syracuse lost three standout defensive backs when Ifeatu Melifonwu, Trill Williams, and Andre Cisco decided to give the NFL draft a shot later this month.
But the Orange have returning experience on the defensive line in Josh Black (eight sacks, one interception) and lots of it elsewhere in the 3-3-5 defensive scheme: sophomore LB Mikel Jones had a team-leading 69 tackles, including eight sacks and four interceptions; DB Ja’Had Carter had 67 tackles and two interceptions in 10 starts as a freshman; DB Rob Hanna had 10 tackles for loss in nine games as a freshman; redshirt freshman DB Garrett Williams had 64 tackles and 10 pass breakups; and sophomore LB Geoff Cantin-Arku had 63 tackles and four quarterback hurries.