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Syracuse Football Roundtable: Previewing Villanova

We're back! The whole TNIAAM football staff jumps into what you need to know for Friday night's matchup.

Bob Levey

Welcome to the Syracuse football roundtable: 2014 season edition! We're about to embark on another Orange football campaign, so of course, it's time to talk through Friday night's game.

As is and will be the norm all season, we've opened the floor to the TNIAAM football wing to discuss this week's burning questions about Syracuse on- and off-the-field, the ACC and more. Join us below...

What's been the biggest surprise around Syracuse football this offseason?

Ben Norowski: The biggest surprise has been the impact the 2014 recruiting class has had on the team. They've come in ready to play and made the upperclassmen raise their games. Guys like Steve Ishmael, Jamal Custis, Erv Philips, Zaire Franklin, and Rodney Williams have proven that they are ready to play if need be and I'm excited to see the position battles moving forward.

The Invisible Swordsman: That there haven't been any major surprises! I mean, we've had a few kids leave the program, we've had the prerequisite LBI and UBI outbreak, pundits are still using the transitive property linking Greg Robinson's Syracuse to Scott Shafer's Syracuse, and HCSMFS is in mid-season form, bringing guns to fights, etc. All is stable in the world of SU Football, and I love it!!!

Sean Farrell: The biggest surprise has been the rise (and rise in interest) in recruiting. We have a pretty good idea what this Syracuse team will be. We know the starting lineup and coaching staff fairly well – most of it hasn’t changed from last year. What we didn’t know was that SU would spend time as the nation’s leader in commits for the Class of 2015. Sure, there’s the argument of quantity vs. quality. Still, getting that much talent from outside New York shows that Syracuse is doing something right. Doug Marrone may be responsible for the program revival, but Scott Shafer’s recruiting team guarantees that it will stay that way.

Jared Smith: For me, it is the lack of big news. Sure there's been some injuries and transfers here and there, but there always seems to be a big story that unfolds during the preseason that we all jump on and ride until the first game. I hope this is a good sign of things to come.

Matt McClusky: The positivity coming out of camp. While there have been injuries (Josh Parris's being the most significant) and suspensions/defections (pour one out for Das Boot), the camp coverage has mostly been on player development and maturation. It's not completely unfamiliar around here, but there's something a little...different going on right now. Almost like the narrative is switching from "When will Syracuse come back?" to "Syracuse is gearing up for another successful season." Almost.

Dan Lyons: I think the speed in which our staff has identified players and built a recruiting class is very impressive. The rankings that SU has now probably won't hold as more four star guys come off the board, but this still should be one of, if not the best classes that Syracuse football has put together in recent memory.

Sean Keeley: The relative quiet in terms of shocks, surprises and soul-crushing injuries. Sure, there have been a few tough bits of news along the way, but nothing that's made me change my mind about the possibilities this season. Invariably, this spells doom.

John Cassillo: The amount of guys that have left the program, to be honest. No, it may not be a HUGE number, but: Corey Cooper, Josh Mims, Jonathan Fisher, Evan Jakubowski and Alex Schoen... plus what could've been a scare with Alin Edouard. That's still significant. And jarring, even if its impact past this offseason is minimal.

Which player seems poised for a breakout season?

BN: Donnie Simmons. This kid is a pure talent that probably would have been our best defensive end last season and then he tore his ACL in camp. I'm expecting big things out of him as I've heard a lot from people behind the scenes, he's not one to sleep on. Offensively how can you not be excited to watch Brisly Estime progress?

TIS: Terrel Hunt. Our quarterback had a very interesting 2013, where he started hot, got knocked down a peg by Clemson, and took most of the rest of the 2013 season getting his confidence back. Hunt followed up a solid performance against Pitt with fantastic games against BC and Minnesota to end the season -- showcasing his true dial-threat capabilities. I think most outside observers still view Hunt as the struggling QB of mid-2013, so I think he is going to surprise many in 2014.

SF: Isaiah Johnson. Last year, he exceeded expectations by getting significant playing time as a true freshman. Replacing Jay Bromley won’t be easy, but Johnson has the size and skill to do it. Though only a sophomore, he benefits by playing on a line with three senior returning starters.

JS: Terrel Hunt. You can argue that last season was his breakout season, but I think he is poised for bigger and better things in 2014 as he has a WR crew he has worked with a bunch, a solid offensive line and a good core of reliable running backs. It either that or Ashton Broyld.

MM: I'm going to cheat and and pick Cam Lynch, Dyshawn Davis and Marqez Hodge. Obviously all three are known quantities, with Lynch and Davis being borderline stars. But I think the three will not only have even bigger seasons than expected, their overall play will probably be a major reason why Syracuse goes bowling, or why it falls short. Here's guessing the Mel Kipers of the world become more familiar with Lynch's and Davis' work shortly.

DL: I think that George Morris will assert himself as the feature back by the end of the year. I like Prince Tyson-Gulley, and he's been a really good program guy for us and should have a productive season, but Morris just looks like a next-level type player at running back. I don't know if anyone's going to put up really gaudy individual stats, but between Morris, PTG, Adonis Ameen-Moore, Devante McFarlane, and Terrel Hunt, Syracuse should be very scary on the ground this year.

SK: Gotta be Brisly Estime, I think. He's being teed up at Syracuse's go-to-guy (I thought we didn't have those...). Although there's a part of me still holding out hope that Ashton Broyld will make good on his potential. Between the two of them, I think we'll see at least one break out and gain some recognition outside of Onondaga County.

JC: I'll go with Julian Whigham, simply to avoid some of the more obvious choices. Thrust into a larger role last year, he showed himself an effective, aggressive ball-hawk -- albeit one that could certainly grow into  abetter cover corner. Healthy, and with a year under his belt now, though, he has a huge opportunity this season to be a truly excellent player at this position. For what it's worth, I think he'll rise to the challenge and excel.

Which freshman is most likely to contribute right away for the Orange?

BN: My favorite player in last year's class was Jamal Custis. He's a matchup nightmare at WR/TE and will be a weapon for us in the redzone. Not many people know this but we had to work harder to keep him than any other kid last year as some big schools (SEC) came sniffing around signing day.

TISJamal Custis. Jamal and fellow freshman Steve Ishmael are expected to contribute to a WR corps who are strong on numbers, but haven't shown a consistent ability to get open and stretch the field. Custis' size and versatility are a plus, and the injury to Josh Parris suggests we'll see Jamal lining up at TE or in the slot straight away.

SF: Steve Ishmael. He’s one of only six freshmen (excluding special teams) to make the two-deep depth chart. Besides, Jarrod West is the only true wide receiver on the team who’s proven himself. There’s a pretty good argument that Jamal Custis could provide more of an immediate impact, but I don’t think the tight end position will have a big role in 2014.

JS: (Quickly looks at the roster.) Ummmm, A.J. Long if Terrel Hunt gets injured? Yeap, that's what I am going with.

MM: It seems as though frosh wideout/tight end Jamal Custis will leave his mark sooner than later. The injury to Josh Parris and the anticipated development of Terrel Hunt should lead to receivers putting up more consistent numbers in 2014 -- I expect Custis to contribute in chunks.

DL: It sounds like Steve Ishmael has been really making an impact in practice, and I'm excited to see him elevate the talent level in the receiving corps. He and Jamal Custis sound like they're ready to make contributions as true freshmen, and I wouldn't be shocked if Ishmael ends up being a top three or so receiver for the Orange.

SK: Sounds as though the only thing that's going to prevent Steve Ishmael from making an impact is Steve Ishmael. Jamal Custis is also being set-up to take on a lot of responsibility at the tight end spot, but he's still adjusting, whereas Ishmael is in a comfy spot at WR. If the answer ends up becoming Cole Murphy...RUN!!!

JC: Jamal Custis and Steve Ishmael both look the part right now, at least according to the depth chart. While Ishmael may ease his way into a more significant role in the passing game, we may see Custis get immediate burn given Josh Parris's injury. He came here to be a playmaker, and bet on him doing just that given this chance to get extended early playing time.

In your opinion, how can play-calling improve this season (compared to 2013)?

BN: Despite GMC's time as the OC at Western Michigan, this was really his first big experience calling plays, and we saw it progress from the beginning of the season to the end, where it looked like everyone was on the same page. I think he'll continue to build on that this season.

TIS: Honestly, I think we all were probably too hard on George McDonald last season...a season where his pre-season first choice QB turned out to be a bust, and the WRs underperformed following the loss of Alec Lemon. With the benefit of hindsight, McDonald needed time to really figure out how to best use the assets at his disposal, and if you look at our offensive efficiency during our last three games, I think he finally figured it all out in the end. We still don't have elite receivers (though I love me some Brisly Estime and Ashton Broyld), but McDonald showed me at least that he now knows how to use Hunt's capabilities, and get touches for our other offensive weapons. We'll collectively moan at the dreaded bubble screen from time to time, but I think we are going to see a lot of BOOM! this season from Coach GMcD.

SF: It may sound like a simple fix or a cliché. Put people in the best position to succeed. And I’ll give you an example. You’d consider Brisly Estime one of Syracuse’s best playmakers, right? Right. Through the first seven games of last season, he had a grand total of…eight receptions. If you include rushes and returns, it only gets slightly better -- 13 total touches halfway through the season. Time after time, we said that it looked like the staff was trying to put a round peg in a square hole. If Shafer and co. can make small changes in Year Two to maximize talent, we could see a big step forward for Syracuse.

JS: Whatever they were doing at the end of last season, do that instead of what you did at the beginning of last season.

MM: Offensive coordinator George McDonald seemed to become more comfortable calling plays as the season went along in 2013. And I don't think it's coincidence that Hunt looked more and more like a starting quarterback as the season went along, too. It sounds like the coaching staff has more faith in itself and in Hunt, and the expectation now is the offense will eschew screen passes and one-yard run-up-the-guts for more slinging-the-ball plays around.

DL: Based on what we've heard this off-season, George McDonald and company have been doing all the right things with the offense, speeding up the play calling process and focusing on successful plays that the team is comfortable running. We saw some of this toward the end of last year, and I think the BC and Minnesota game offenses will more closely resemble what we see this year than the disastrous mid-season performances.

SK: I think it all comes down to Terrel Hunt taking advantage of his weapons. Even if the play calling isn't all that varied, he's got so many options available to him between RBs, FBs, H-Backs, WRs and TEs. And when we're running the ball, we've got backs that run the gamut of size and speed. So let's keep things varied and keep the defense on their toes.

JC: Totally agree with Jared above. But with more detail: Utilize bubble screens to pull in the defense and set up downfield plays. Let the running game keep linebackers on their toes. Use Hunt's mobility to keep defenders guessing... we have SO many options with this group of players. Just need to put them all in the best spots to succeed.

How does Villanova stay competitive on Friday, or even (gulp) pull an upset on SU?

BN: Villanova is a very good 1-AA team. They scare me a bit. But Tulane made a bowl game last year and we blew them out in Hunt's second game as a starter. I think if Nova can force some turnovers it will be close for a half, but this isn't a Saturday nooner. Not to mention I think this Syracuse team is as focused as I've seen them this camp and I don't think they take Nova lightly.

TIS: Jay Wright has to pressure our young backcourt and make sure his guards get open looks behind the ar...oh, wait, we are talking FOOTBALL??? Look, Villanova are no mugs, and are in the upper tier of the FCS, but I can't see a scenario where they win this game. John Robertson is a good QB, and the game will be competitive for a half, but we just have too much for the Wildcats to keep it that way over 60 minutes.

SF: Test the Orange secondary early on. Syracuse will probably come out a little rusty on account of, you know, not having played in eight months. The Wildcats have a good dual-threat QB in John Robertson and SU is starting two new corners. The Orange will face some of the best passing attacks in the nation this year. Let’s start by seeing how they can handle one of the best the CAA has to offer.

JS: Score a bunch of points early and hang on to dear life. That's how most of these Week 1 upsets happen, right?

MM: The basics apply here: survive the initial wave of emotion, avoid pick-six style turnovers and hold SU to field goal attempts. Syracuse may jump out early and the crowd (all 32,000 people) will be going crazy that football is back, but come early third quarter, when everyone is in that typical "This Is A D-1AA Team SU's Playing" coma, a long momentum-killing drive for Nova could change the outcome of the game.

DL: Force turnovers and big plays on special teams, keep Hunt contained in the pocket and blanket the Syracuse receivers. Even if all that happens, asking an FCS front to slow down Syracuse's four or five-headed running game is a tall order, but they can keep it close if Hunt can't take the top off of the defense. I wouldn't be too confident about it if I was a Wildcat fan.

SK: Punch Syracuse's defense in the mouth. If I were them, I'd start testing our secondary right off the bat. Find out if our safeties can defend the deep ball. See if our corners can handle one-on-one. Really stretch our linebackers and take them out of commission, leaving yourself to deal with an untested defensive line. If the Cats can get some early scores and put us on our heels early, it could not only throw off our defense but our offense as well.

JC: Punish the Syracuse blitz with John Robertson's legs, and make them pay for quick pushes into the backfield (reference: the tape from the FSU game last year). Also, test the Orange defensive backs early and often, and hope one of them gets caught out of position (not out of the question). If 'Nova can find a way to shut down the SU rushing attack, all that stress on the passing game could force some errors. None of these are sure things, though...

What NEEDS to happen for Syracuse to run away with a season-opening win?

BN: Terrel needs to get some early momentum and lead a nice drive for a touchdown to start the game. A three-and-out would get the Dome grumbling after optimism is at an all time high. The defense needs to play solid, not take too many risks and keep players in front of them. No big plays. This game really doesn't worry me as much as it would have as recent as a few years ago.

TIS: Play #hardnosed football from the outset. Be aggressive and wear down Villanova's lines on both sides of the ball pound 'em for a while. Use Hunt's mobility to keep the 'Nova front seven close to the line of scrimmage, allowing space for our receivers to get down field and open. On D, contain Robertson from getting out on the edges with his legs, and force him to stay in the pocket. Football 101 should be enough to get our football team to 1-0.

SF: Just don’t lay an egg. Syracuse hasn’t lost to a current FCS school since 1958. I don’t expect that streak to end on Friday. Get the running game going and don’t turn the ball over. That simple.

JS: Terrel Hunt plays solid. Orange defense just does its job. GAME OVER.

MM: The Orange needs to score and score quick. Keep the fans happy right out of the gait and remind Villanova it's playing above its head.

DL: Limit big plays down the field, get after the quarterback, and don't have any really awful mistakes. I expect this to look like last year's Wagner and Tulane games.

SK: The offensive line needs to pick up where it left off and just give Terrel Hunt time to do what Terrel Hunt does. If he's improved as much as it seems and if the offense is clicking as much as we've hoped, then we should be good. Then defensively, set the linebackers free!

JC: Run the ball, most importantly. Typically, when Syracuse runs the ball well, good things happen from there. From the defensive side, don't let the Wildcats dictate the pace of this game, because lesser quarterbacks than Robertson have burned us before.