Three wins, three losses sounds about right. If you had polled most Syracuse fans about the first six games heading into the season, Northwestern and Clemson were heavy favorites, Tulane and Wagner were more or less penciled in as wins, and Penn State and the trip down to N.C. State were viewed as toss-ups. A lot of things about this Syracuse season have seemed pretty unpredictable, but the actual results on the field have gone pretty close to what one would expect.
We've learned a fair amount about this team so far, but because of an inconsistent passing game and questions in the defensive backfield and on special teams, bowl eligibility is still way up in the air. This is a team that most of us could see finishing at five wins or seven wins, but we don't have a great handle on which is more likely.
Quarterback: The Drew Allen experiment didn't go very well, and doesn't hold much weight with regard to the team going forward, so I won't spend much time on it. We are in the Terrel Hunt era for the rest of this season, and quite possibly for the next two seasons as well, and...well, we don't quite know how to feel about that. The Wagner game was miraculous, but that is Wagner. Tulane was more of the same, and while it is easy to say 'but, Tulane', Tulane is now 5-2 and could rack up a bunch of wins in C-USA. They're not a great team and it's not a great win by any means, but it isn't the proverbial second FCS team that many thought after the drubbing in the Carrier Dome.
The last two games have not been very good, and a few people around the internet have chimed in about giving Drew another shot, but if all things are equal in the passing game (which, at worst, they are...at best, Hunt is still a sizable upgrade based on the Wagner game), Hunt's running ability swings things in his favor. Hunt is a very smart, elusive, opportunistic runner, and while I am afraid he is going to start pulling the ball too quickly because of a lack of receiver separation, he generally makes the decision to run at the right time, and he seems hard to bring down. This strong decision making bodes well for his future in the pocket as well, and when he has had open receivers, he's shown that he can find them.
It's too early to anoint Hunt, but it's even more premature to totally write him off. The guy is 3-1 in games where he's received the majority of the meaningful snaps, and most of the defenses he faces going forward are not as strong as Clemson, and many aren't as good as N.C. State.
Running Backs: Over the last two weeks, the talented Syracuse backfield has lived up to the billing as the strongest group on the team. After a few weeks where it didn't quite look like offensive coordinator George McDonald knew how best to use the rushing game, the team has exploded for back-to-back 300 yard games.
Jerome Smith is an absolute monster. His issues with getting into the end zone seem to be gone, as he leads the ACC in total touchdowns among non-quarterbacks with nine. He doesn't have top end speed, but he's not slow by any means, and he just devours yardage.
I don't love Prince-Tyson Gulley running up the middle, which we seem to open a lot of drives with, but he's great when he can take the corner, and he seems especially effective late in games after Smith has battered a team for a few quarters. I think McDonald is still working out exactly how to best use Gulley, but he was definitely on to something in the N.C. State game.
George Morris II and Devante MacFarlane are still waiting in the wings for the most part, but if it weren't for the two veterans in front of them, I think either one could be a 1,000 yard rusher in this offense right now with primary ball-carrier snaps. They've looked that good, and I'm sold on their ability. I'm not sold on Smith leaving for the NFL after this season, but even if he does, Syracuse is solid at running back for the next few years.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: It's no secret - this is the trouble spot in the offense. Replacing Marcus Sales and Alec Lemon is no easy feat, but I don't think anyone expected this group to have these kinds of struggles. Ashton Broyld is the only player with the combination of size, speed, and strength to get open with any regularity, and he's still learning the position. Jarrod West and Hunt seem to have some weird disconnect - it is jarring how many mistimed plays or wrong routes we've seen between these two. Chris Clark has given Syracuse more than many would expect, but his size is an issue when teams jam him at the line. Adrian Flemming seems to be a big loss, if only for his blocking and size as a flanker.
When we found out that Hunt would get a large share of the snaps after Northwestern, I expected that to open things up for the tight ends, but they have had largely the same issues as the receivers. Beckett Wales doesn't seem to be completely healthy, so hopefully he can rest up and come back for a strong second half after next week's bye. A safety valve at tight end would do this offense wonders.
As an outside observer, I don't think the problems with the passing game can be blamed on any one person. Hunt needs to develop, the receivers need to get better at getting separation, and McDonald needs to draw up plays that better utilize the players he has at the position. Much has been speculated about Quinta Funderburk; I trust that the coaching staff is playing the best players, though it is strange that he cannot find the field considering he received rave reviews from last year's practices under the Marrone staff. If the struggles continue, you might as well see what he has, because he literally cannot be more ineffective than anyone not named Ashton Broyld in that Clemson game.
Offensive Line: I thought that many of the concerns about this group were largely unfounded heading into the season. Teams see major upheaval on the lines every year if they have quality players, so while Justin Pugh is a big loss, the team still had four players with starting experience coming back. The line had some struggles early on, but the unit has really come together over the last few weeks, and was dominant against a very good Wolfpack front seven. Clemson's Vic Beasley made some plays late in that game, but for the most part I thought Sean Hickey did well against one of the ACC's best edge rushers, and hasn't had notable issues with anyone else. Macky MacPherson has to be one of the best stories in recent Syracuse football history. No one got more unwarranted crap thrown at him on the internet than Macky, but as a senior he is one of the best players on the whole team, he has done everything he needed to in the weight room, he has elite mechanics as a center, and he seems charismatic and a total class act as a representative of the university. The biggest tool in Macky's game is his ability to pull. There are NFL teams that can't pull their center on outside runs; that ability gives the Syracuse running game a lot of options in terms of blocking schemes, and makes it way easier to mask what they're doing up front.
The three younger guys up front - Rob Trudo, Nick Robinson, and Ivan Foy - have all had their struggles this year, but none of them have killed the team, and all have really come along, especially in the N.C. State game. My biggest knock on this group is the number of false starts that we've seen so far. Syracuse as a whole has a big penalty issue that needs to be addressed.
Defensive Line: Defensive end was the position with the most uncertainty this side of quarterback. While no superstars have emerged at this position (aside from Rob Welsh's amazing performance against Penn State), the players here have all been rock solid, and the unit as a whole has been a pleasant surprise. I was concerned about Ron Thompson's move from tight end to defensive end, but it looks to be the right decision. He's only been playing the position for a few months, but he's already one of the better playmakers on the defensive line. He may develop into a great player here. Welsh and Micah Robinson are solid, strong fundamental players, and will be hugely important this weekend against Georgia Tech's speed option.
Jay Bromley may be the best player on Syracuse's roster. Six sacks in six games as an interior lineman is incredibly impressive. Jay is the best player Syracuse has had on the inside since Art Jones. Bromley has been commanding double teams all season and is still getting great production, and with a strong second half, he may play himself into the draft as a 4-3 tackle or even a 3-4 end for some teams, unless he can bulk up a little more. Perhaps most impressively, opposing quarterbacks have been dropped for a total of -58 yards on Bromley's six sacks, so he's averaging nearly ten yard losses per sack, which is a crazy number.
Linebackers: Marquis Spruill is a four year starter, but he had never really stood out as a dominant player until this season. After moving back from outside linebacker to the middle linebacker spot that he played as a sophomore, Spruill is having an excellent season, and is all over the field for the Orange. He is second on the team in both sacks (three) and tackles for loss (7.5), and has been playing at a high level all season.
Dyshawn Davis and Cameron Lynch have not disappointed either. While they haven't gotten to the quarterback as often as many hoped, they've played smart assignment-based football. Both Cameron Lynch and his understudy Josh Kirkland have been burned on long pass plays, but this is more of a schematic problem than a player problem. Lynch and Kirkland are not defensive backs, they are not pseudo-safeties by any means, and they should not be relied on to stop slot receivers. When Scott Shafer was the Syracuse defensive coordinator, he seemed far more open to switching up schemes, and even installed a 3-3-5 look in 2010 and 2011 against certain squads like West Virginia. I understand that Chuck Bullough is a straight 4-3 coordinator, but we need to implement more Nickel and Dime looks. Having linebackers on slot receivers isn't fair to the Orange defenders.
Speaking of Kirkland, he and back-up middle linebacker Luke Arciniega have looked great in limited time, and I don't worry too much about Kirkland's ability to fill in for Dyshawn Davis, although we clearly want a healthy linebacking corps for Georgia Tech.
Defensive Backs: Northwestern and Clemson have and will make many defensive backfields look really bad, but I haven't seen many worse performances where so many people were running wild. As I wrote above, I think a major issue is Bullough's reliance on the 4-3 against high octane passing teams and in passing situations, especially with how much Syracuse blitzes, but our corners did not step up to the plate in those one-on-one match-ups either. I got on Ri'Shard Anderson a lot last season, and to his credit, he rebounded towards the end of the year, but he hasn't been great this season. Even Keon Lyn was spotty before his injury. Luckily, I think the next guys up are very good players, especially Julian Whigham who has two interceptions in as many games.
At safety, Jeremi Wilkes is who he is - he occasionally gets beat deep and he's not a flashy playmaker, but he gets the job done for the most part. I do look forward to seeing more Wayne Morgan, both at corner this year and presumptively at safety next season after Wilkes graduates.
Durell Eskridge is probably the most intriguing player on the defense for me, and for good reason. Physically, he has every tool you could want from a defensive back. He's tall, fast, rangy, athletic, and other fancy adjectives. He dominated the N.C. State game with 14 tackles, and leads the team in that category. He has NFL talent written all over him. Unfortunately, he was abused in coverage against Clemson, and seems to get caught out of position more than anyone else. At 6'3", Eskridge should be a model ball-hawk in this defense, hopefully he develops into one.
Special Teams: Even with his inconsistencies, losing Ross Krautman is a big deal. He was spectacular as a freshman, and very good as a sophomore as well. Hopefully he can get his groin issue taken care of and get a fifth year from the NCAA so he can finish his Syracuse career on a high note. We're going to have to live with Ryan Norton, and I think the staff can make it work if they put him in makeable kicking situations, and try to keep him inside 40-yards. If the offense is outside the 25, and it's not a daunting distance for the first down, try to convert rather than take a 50/50 shot on three points. I don't promote a lot of the short-field punting that we've seen so far, but at least in Riley Dixon we have a kid who can execute those field-position kicks. He doesn't have a huge leg, but I love seeing all the different spins he can put on the ball. Anything you can do to put pressure on college players in high-leverage situations like punt returns is a plus.
I've been a bit underwhelmed by our return games so far, but after a season of Steve Rene, having Richard Desir catch the ball cleanly is fine by me. On kick returns, Morris and MacFarlane bobble the ball WAY too much, and take the ball out of the end zone more than I would like. Overall, touchdowns on special teams are nice, but I'd rather have solid, workable field position on a regular basis.
Closing thoughts: Even with the struggles against Clemson and Northwestern, and a real blown opportunity at Metlife Stadium against an average Penn State team, there is a lot to like about this year's Syracuse outfit, especially after a two touchdown win in Raleigh. This team is among the best in the ACC in the trenches on both sides of the ball, and has the running game we expected coming into the season. Teams with dynamic quarterbacks and speed on the outside will continue to give Bullough's defense trouble, but besides Florida State and a single player here and there on other teams, I'm not concerned about Syracuse being outclassed going forward. I still think six wins and a low-tier bowl is a reasonable expectation, and if Terrel Hunt and his receivers can cure what ails them, a third place finish in the Atlantic is definitely in play.