It was a hardnosed Syracuse Spring day for a hardnosed Spring practice. Aside from the action on the field, most nose-hardening was the result of what was a fairly typical spring day for the hardnosed city of Syracuse, with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees, with almost no sunshine, and strong winds.
Things started slow, so I was glad I got there a bit late. When I got there, players were still warming up while fans in the stands (maybe around 50 people) were doing just the opposite - freezing. As Central NYers, we tend not to dress warm enough on cold spring days, as if to will warmer weather to get here sooner. There were plenty of people, including myself, doing their best to convince themselves that their spring jacket and baseball cap were warm enough. #Hardnosed.
The practice wasn't an all out live-action scrimmage like the first open practice was. It started out with stations, and slowly transitioning into more and more action, with receivers and QBs practicing routes while lineman practiced blocking drills, then slowly bringing the secondary over to challenge the receivers, then bringing in the other units in what seemed like a half speed scrimmage. Eventually things heated up to a full on, hard hitting scrimmage for about the 2nd half of practice.
There finally appears to be some separation in the battle between Loeb and Hunt for the starting QB spot, with Hunt taking about 40% of the snaps. Hunt was clearly the better quarterback on Sunday afternoon. Hunt completed throw after throw, moving naturally in the pocket when needed, and throwing hard, tight spirals that cut cleanly through the high winds. He had a beautiful long touchdown pass to Clark, who made a nice catch for the completion. Hunt also connected on a 30+ yard pass that almost went for a touchdown earlier in the practice, but he made his worst throw of the practice just two plays later with an interception in the endzone. In addition to that "ugly mistake," he also threw an ugly pass into the flat that was nearly picked off and surely would've gone for six if it was.
Even with the ugly plays, Hunt was still far and away the best QB on the field, as Loeb struggled to connect on passes both long and short. He overthrew his receiver by about five yards on an early deep throw to the corner of the endzone, although it may have been carried by the wind. It wasn't just the deep ball he struggled with. Among many incompletions, he threw two interceptions and a near interception on an attempted deep ball, the product of both misplaced passes and bad decision making. It felt like he was forcing his throws far too much, while Hunt played poised, made good decisions, and threw darts all day, seeming completely unaffected by the wind. As if to put a point on it, Hunt broke into the open field and went the distance on what appeared to be a designed run towards the end of practice, showing vision and making a nice smooth cut. Loeb did have one standout play though, connecting on a deep (maybe 30 yards through the air) pass to Alvin Cornelius, who ran it the rest of the way in for a touchdown.
While George Morris III and Devante McFarlane continued to show their excellent vision and smooth cuts, Morris in particular, Jerome Smith showed why he's the main event. It may have been his bruising early runs that made defenders think twice about stepping in front of "The Bus" again that opened up a long 70 yard touchdown run late in the scrimmage. Then again, Smith's first play of the scrimmage went the distance as well. It was almost unsettling to witness the powerful, violent nature of a Jerome Smith run from ground level. It also appeared that he was faster, gaining separation after reaching the next level in a way that he struggled to do last season.
The defense was playing fast all day. Scary fast. There were few solo tackles necessary, as the entire defense seemed to collapse on the ball play after play. The outside was basically completely unavailable to the offense, with the exception of some nice screen plays. Any time an offensive play tried to go outside, it would get blown up by the defense. The secondary has been impressive as well, consistently breaking up plays, ball hawking, and getting big INTs.
Players that stood out on defense were John Raymon (6'5", 320 lb Iowa transfer looking at first season of eligibility), Manley, Wayne Morgan, Keon Lyn, and Josh Kirkland (transfer from Butler CC in Kansas). Manley and Raymond were wreaking havoc all day, and teamed up on a lightning fast sack. Wayne Morgan was was just solid in coverage all day, and was consistently disrupting plays. Kirkland played as you'd expect a guy from a small town transferring in as a JUCO to play, like a man with something to prove.
Lyn did what Lyn does, and was always right where he needed to be. He looked great in coverage and on special teams came in fast off the edge, diving to block a field goal attempt. The blocked kick was picked up by a defender and would've went for six, except that Kirkland's intensity and instincts to go after the ball carrier "flowethed over," so to speak, and led him to tackle his own man, who would've otherwise carried the blocked kick for a touchdown. His fellow defenders laughed and admonished "number 27," apparently still learning the name of one of the newest additions to the defense.
Competition and intensity was not an issue throughout the practice. Head coach Scott Shafer eluded to "playing through the echo of the whistle" and that the guys perhaps played past "the echo of the whistle" a bit more than he'd want come Fall, but loves the intensity level for Spring ball. Some of that playing past "the echo of the whistle" includes Eskridge punching another player after a play. Shafer swiftly laid down the law and threw him out of the scrimmage. I'm guessing it was the fact he threw a punch that led to his expulsion, as there was no shortage of roughness after the whistle all day.
Keenan Hale got tangled up on a route during early drills between receivers and the secondary, and took a hard fall. He was down for about five minutes, and was eventually helped off by staff, but as he walked by fans and press in the stands he shrugged off the assistants and walked off on his own power. I'd guess he's alright, but I didn't get a glimpse later to confirm.
Big Ron Thompson appears to be healing up well, running laps during the early part of practice and even participating in some drills and catching some balls. He played without pads and wasn't allowed to take part in any of the live action.
All said, I'm optimistic about this team. It's already showing promise and there's still a lot of talent that hasn't even arrived on campus for 2013. There's really every reason to get out to the Spring Game, as the product on the field is better than its been in awhile, you'll be able to meet the team after the game (and maybe even some of the players going in the draft and the Jones brothers, who've been training in Syracuse), and join fellow fans to help impress visiting recruits, including four star Thomas Acquinas receiver Corey Holmes.
If you don't turn out for the Spring Game on Saturday, not only will you miss out, you shall be scorned by Offensive Coordinator George McDonald and the wrath of MF Scott Shafer shall fall upon you with the vengeance of a thousand Pat Perles (references in my last post under "The Coaches").
See you at the Dome on Saturday! Go Cuse!