As is his usual practice regimen, Doug Marrone arrived at Syracuse's last football practice of the spring as special teams drills were winding down. However, instead of his normal quiet entrance to the field, he took an unexpected detour over to us common folk who come out every day to watch practice from behind the chain-link fence separating us from the action on the field. He thanked us for coming out, and asked us if we would like to come inside onto the sideline for this last practice. We graciously obliged, and crossed over the other side of the fence for the first time.
With the spring game just a few days away, practice felt a bit less intense as it has been all spring. The players kept going hard, but there were none of the major fights or huge hits that we've seen throughout the month; this was fine for the final practice as we don't need any more injuries before Saturday's scrimmage.
Jerome Smith suited up for practice after returning from injury, but did not do any real contact drills, and won't play in the spring game. Max Beaulieu was sidelined with injury, although he is listed as available for the game.
There were a number of Syracuse alumni on campus watching the final practice of spring, including Orange great Donovan Darius, former New Orleans Saint, Denver Bronco and Atlanta Falcon PJ Alexander, as well as Joe Fields.
I'll give impressions, as well as breakdown the Spring Game rosters and my expectations after the jump...
Quarterbacks - Ryan Nassib's pocket awareness is just leaps and bounds better than it was even a few months ago in the Bronx. Even in the face of the most tenacious Scott Shafer blitzing schemes, Nassib steps up into the pocket and will deliver a good throw. Our offensive line is a bit vulnerable to really strong pass rushers, so this skill should be invaluable for Nassib and the Syracuse offense. I can't really say enough about how consistently strong Nassib has been this spring.
Running Backs - Someone asked me after one of these write-ups who I felt is the most pleasant surprise of the spring. I'm not ready to commit to a definite answer, but Steve Rene is definitely in the mix. He's been a great surprise since the third or so week of practice, and has really shined since Jerome Smith went down with an injury, which has expanded his role.
One of my favorite plays of the Pinstripe Bowl was the deep touchdown pass to Marcus Sales, which was sparked by an absolutely incredible block by Antwon Bailey where he flipped the Kansas State blitzer over. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Bailey continues to be a great blocker in the backfield, and picks up blitzes incredibly well, especially for someone his size. He and Adam Harris do an admirable job on blocking for Nassib in the backfield, and combined with his running ability and his ability to catch passes out of the backfield, Bailey is really an all-around great player.
Wide Receiver - Van Chew saw an expanded role in full 11-on-11 scrimmaging during yesterday's practice, and looked pretty good, making some of the great acrobatic catches that we came to expect from him after last season. He is, however, being held out of tomorrow's game according to the PDF roster released by SU Athletics.
Jarrod West got more reps than usual with the first team, and should see plenty of action on Saturday as the second receiver on Scott Shafer's white squad.
Offensive Line - All hands (besides those belonging to Sean Hickey, who has sat out almost all of the spring) are on deck for tomorrow's game. The breakdown should be interesting, with the blue squad taking the starting tackles Justin Pugh and Michael Hay, as well as center Macky MacPhereson, and the white taking the two starting guards Zach Chibane and Andrew Tiller.
Nick Lepak is the second string center, but has had some trouble snapping the shotgun, which is something to look for at tomorrow's game, as Lepak will be playing center for the white squad.
Defensive Line - During individual drills, first string stalwart Jay Bromley gave way to Deon Goggins and Cory Boatman who took almost all of the reps in working with coach Jimmy Brumbaugh. It will be interesting to see how Max Beaulieu and Robert Welsh, who are on the white team with Bromley, do against the starting offensive guards.
Linebackers - It is hard to say much about the linebackers from yesterday as there was not much live tackling, but it will be exciting to see all six play tomorrow as they are all very solid players.
Defensive Backs - One interesting note is that Keon Lyn has replaced Kevyn Scott as the starter at corner opposite Ri'Shard Anderson for the last few practices. Scott has had a very good spring, but obviously Lyn has had a big impact lately, to take that starting spot. The good news is that we have great depth at defensive back, with the three very capable veteran corners, along with freshman Jaston George, as well as a number of strong players at safety.
Special Teams - Both Shane Raupers and Ross Krautman worked on kickoffs and looked solid. Krautman definitely got a bit more yardage on his kicks on average. Raupers looks better in live punting, although he is still a bit too inconsistent.
Prince-Tyson Gulley and Steve Rene returned punts, with Jeremiah Kobena joining them for kick returns. Gulley and Rene are shifty runners which make them ideal punt returners, while I like Kobena's raw north-and-south running speed for kick returns.
Spring Game Preview:
Assuming Nassib takes most of the snaps under center for the White squad, they have the distinct advantage here. Loeb and Kinder have had their moments, but Nassib is definitely the best QB we have, and it will show tomorrow.
Bailey is the best runner we have, but Gulley and Rene give the blue more depth at the position. Both have had great spring, and will get the added bonus of playing with starting fullback Adam Harris.
This is a very close match-up, and a great example of what a good job the coaching staff did of breaking up this team. The top three receivers of each team have all had solid springs, but Sales is our best receiver and Graham may be our most dangerous offensive weapon. If Graham brings his hands tomorrow, the Blue squad should have the slight receiver advantage.
Without much depth at tight end, the team with Nick Provo has the distinct advantage.
For this ground, the coaches separated our starting Tackles and Center and our guards. I think that the strength of our defensive line is in the pass rush, so having the tackles gives the Blue squad an advantage. If Nick Lepak struggles with his snaps, the white offensive line might really struggle.
There is a big drop-off after our first three defensive tackles, which will put a lot of pressure on Jay Bromley of the White squad. On the inside, he's going to have to partner with the inexperience Rob Welsh or Max Beaulieu. The Blue squad have the potentially dangerous Deon Goggins, as well as Marinovich and pass-rush specialist Brandon Sharpe, which should give them the distinct advantage, especially if Goggins is having a good day.
All six of our scholarship linebackers can play. Spruill is definitely the best player here, but the White Squad get starters Dan Vaughan and Dyshawn Davis, and Lewellyn Coker is a very solid player who could be looking to make a statement in this spring game, so they may have a slight advantage, although this position could be too close to call.
The Blue side has our best DB in Phil Thomas, our best cover corner in Anderson, and another corner who has started most of the spring in Scott. Lyn and Wilkes have been good, and George shows a lot of potential, but the blue has a definite advantage here, which they'll need when going against Nassib.
The Blue squad gets both the starting Kicker, Punter and two of the three return men. The White squad has our long snapper, and fan-favorite Ryan Lichtenstein, but Blue definitely got most of the special teams firepower for Saturday.
The staff did a great job of breaking up these teams, and this game should be very close. I think the Blue squad probably has a bit more depth, but the White squad has the ever-important starting quarterback in Nassib. This game is going to come down to the White passing game against a very strong Blue secondary. Whoever wins that match-up will probably take the game.
I'm incredibly excited for this culmination of the spring camp. It's been a fun ride watching this team grow and covering it for you all, and I look forward to how everything shakes out tomorrow.