Monday's blizzard, which led to Syracuse University's first full snow day in 18 years, left the entire campus under more than a foot of snow. On the first day of spring football practice Schwartzwalder-Katz field, the normal site of spring practice, was no exception. Luckily for Doug Marrone and the Orange, Manley Field House has recently been converted into a beautiful indoor practice facility.
Tuesday was my first time seeing the renovation to Manley, and for a stop-gap solution while the university raises funds for a football-specific indoor facility, it does a great job. About 40 or so Syracuse fans showed up to watch practice from the remaining section of bleachers overlooking the field.
Practice in Manley presented a great opportunity to look at the entire team on the first day. At the outdoor fields, the general public is on the defense side, so there is rarely a good opportunity to see offensive drills until the entire team comes together for run-throughs. That, coupled with the fact that this first practice was helmets-only, allowed for a real focus on the passing game. Unfortunately, this means fewer up close and personal Scott Shafer antics, but I'm sure the rest of the spring will more than make up for it.
Specific position and player impressions after the jump...
Quarterbacks - While Ryan Nassib had quite the up-and-down season for Syracuse this past fall, at this point it is safe to assume he will be the starting signal caller for the Orange in 2011. However, there are three intriguing players backing up Ryan that many Syracuse fans have been asking about since the mid-season slump the Orange endured during last fall.
Charley Loeb, the only quarterback from Marrone's original recruiting class two years ago, throws the tightest spiral on the team. The tall lefty also showed some scrambling ability when facing a tough pass rush in drills. However, his long, somewhat slow release could prove to be problematic. Loeb rotated snaps with Nassib on first team offense when the squad split to install plays.
Redshirt freshman John Kinder is a very intriguing player, and he showed a ton of promise during this first spring practice. The Long Island native from Lawrence High School, who Marrone praised for his work during the practices leading up to the Pinstripe Bowl, may have the strongest arm on the team. He throws a beautiful ball, and has a McNabb-like ability to extend the play with his scrambling ability. Kinder struggles at times with touch passes. On a few occasions he fired a ball right past an open running back on what should have been an easy dump off. Luckily, he has plenty of time left to develop, especially with Nassib here for two more seasons, and his issues are all very correctable through good coaching.
Jonny Miller was one of the highest rated recruits in Syracuse's class last February, coming out of Denver, CO football powerhouse Mullen High School. An injury that hurt Miller's throwing motion kept him sidelined all season, as Marrone and the staff didn't want the young quarterback to develop bad habits. However, Miller's mechanics looked really awkward yesterday, and it was a bit disconcerting. He has a huge hitch in his throwing motion that I do not remember seeing in his high school film. His release is very slow right now, and he is definitely behind the other three quarterbacks at this point, although he did show good arm strength and throws a very catchable ball.
That leaves us with the incumbent starter at QB, Nassib. The redshirt junior seemed to pick up right where he left off in Yankee Stadium this past December. Nassib looked very comfortable throwing every route, doing so quite effortlessly as he hit receivers all over the field. Nassib is clearly in the driver seat to keep his spot atop the depth chart.
Running Backs - Tyrone Wheatley has, by far, the most interesting position drills I have ever seen. One involved two running backs facing away from each other and try to touch a cone on the ground, with a bungee cord connected to each of the arms that is holding the football. As they run in opposite directions, the cord simulates defenders grabbing at the back's arm while trying to force a fumble. In another drill, the running backs simply threw footballs against the wall and tried to catch them on the rebound. Hopefully this was not a commentary on our quarterbacks' throwing ability.
Without pads, it was difficult to really gauge running back play. Expected starter Antwon Bailey looked good, as did rising sophomore Prince-Tyson Gulley who gashed the defense on a number of plays. The back who impressed me the most was Jerome Smith, who sat out most of last season with an injury. While many expect incoming freshman Adonis Ameen-Moore to fill the vacancy left by Delone Carter as the bruising short yardage back, Smith has a similar running style and showed great burst through the line. It will be interesting to see how the running back situation shakes out this season with Bailey, Gulley, Smith, Ameen-Moore, and Steve Rene, who also looked good running the ball, all looking for carries.
Wide Receivers - This position may see the greatest improvement from 2010-2011. Marcus Sales, who was seldom seen making plays during last year's spring practice, looked very solid all day, and was with the first team during the entire practice. Alec Lemon and Jeremiah Kobena, who spent last year at Milford Academy after originally signing with the Orange in 2010, made some very impressive catches in traffic. Dorian Graham also looked light years ahead of where he was as a receiver last season, catching almost everything thrown his way during practice. Jarrod West looked very impressive running deep routes, and blew past the Syracuse corners on a number of occasions, although he dropped one sure touchdown and on another he was grabbed by corner Ri'Shard Anderson on what would have likely been a defensive pass interference call, after a perfect pass from Nassib.
The star of the day, however, was Adrian Flemming. Flemming made big play after big play, showing incredible concentration and leaping ability and pulling down highlight-reel catches against some of the best Syracuse defensive backs. Last year's spring practice was Van Chew's coming out party as a major contributor for the Orange, and Flemming had a similar performance yesterday.
Tight Ends - Nick Provo looked really solid, and will probably be a focal point of the offense. However, other tight ends David Stevens and Beckett Wales dropped a number of passes struggled throughout the practice.
Offensive Line - There is not much to say about the offensive line play on a day without pads and full contact. The unit looks to have gotten in better shape during the off-season and looked solid in drills. Macky MacPherson did in fact play with the first team at center. Andrew Tiller showed great footwork and may be poised for a breakout season.
Defensive Line - The D-Line could be the strength of Scott Shafer's defense this season, although that statement is deeply contingent on the play of the interior linemen. Seniors Andrew Lewis, Anthony Perkins and Bud Tribbey who played the lion's share of the minutes at defensive tackle are all graduating. Cory Boatman and Deon Goggins ran with the first team through most of practice, while Jay Bromley and Robert Welsh also saw time in the middle of the line. It is hard to judge line play without pads, but Bromley looked impressive getting off the ball.
The defensive end position, on the other hand, returns an incredible amount of talent, experience and depth. Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich look to build on their great 2010 seasons, and pass-rush specialist Brandon Sharpe looked absolutely explosive off of the line.
Linebackers - The linebacker corps loses a ton of production in graduating seniors and NFL hopefuls Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith. Marquis Spruill is the unit's lone returning starter and seems to have moved over to middle linebacker. He was joined on the first team by Dan Vaughan and Mario Tull.
Defensive Backs - Syracuse loses a lot of experience in the defensive backfield with the graduation of Da'Mon Merkerson and Mike Holmes, but return a bevy of talented young players. Jeremi Wilkes, Keon Lyn (who was wearing Cody Catalina's #8 rather than the #18 he wore last year), Ri'Shard Anderson, Kevyn Scott and true freshman Jaston George split reps at corner.
Safety Phil Thomas made the play of the day. Fullback Shane Kimmel bobbled an easy dump-off pass from Loeb, which was quickly snagged out of the air by Thomas and taken to the house, sparking a massive celebration by the entire defense, while the offense had to immediately begin a round of up downs to pay for their turnover.
While the receivers played well and made their share of plays on the day, the defensive backs made a number of tough break-ups and looked very good as well, and the young unit should continue to improve leading up to the season.
Special Teams - Both Ross Krautman and Ryan Lichtenstein looked good while kicking field goals before practice. Shane Raupers, who recently rejoined the Orange, did most of the punting. He consistently kicked the ball between 45-60 yards deep, but his punts did not always have great hang-time, although he did hit the roof of Manley a few times. He will be battling for the position with incoming freshman Jonathan Fisher. MacPherson, Nick Lepak, Ian Allport and walk-on Eric Morris did the snapping on special teams. Gulley and Rene practiced returning punts, with Graham and Wilkes getting the most reps as gunners in the coverage unit, although Lyn, Anderson and George were also worked in.
Syracuse practices again this Thursday and again on Friday, however I will be in New York at the Big East Tournament (and may be providing some coverage for TNIAAM). My coverage of spring practice will pick back up after spring break for the fourth session, on March 22nd.