Spring practice started bright and early for the Syracuse Orange this morning, setting the program on the path toward its new future under Dino Babers. We've been trying to address some of the biggest questions around SU football these past couple weeks, going position-by-position to get to the bottom of what the 2016 squad's all about.
Does bringing back experienced wide receivers and tight ends again help Syracuse's offense?
Who's on campus?
Pretty much everybody from last year... which is the same exact thing we said last spring.
At wide receiver, Steve Ishmael and Brisly Estime both return, along with Sean Avant, Alvin Cornelius, Jamal Custis and Kenterius Womack. Freshman Moe Neal is already on campus, and you can probably loop him in with the other players that fit a "hybrid" mold like Dontae Strickland, Ervin Philips and Tyrone Perkins. There's a slew of other options on the roster too, including Adly Enoicy, Troy Green, Nesean Crofford and Clay Austin. Ben Lewis elected to forego his final year of eligibility, as we covered.
The returning, more experienced tight ends include Kendall Moore, Josh Parris and Cam MacPherson. Tyler Provo and PJ Batten are also back. Every player at the tight end spot is an upperclassmen, with the latter three names all respectively playing their final seasons.
Who's arriving this summer?
Two more names, actually. The speedy Devin Butler has a world of potential to unlock for this program and Babers's up-tempo attack. He and similarly quick frosh Sean Riley are likely to redshirt this fall, but you'll be hearing both names plenty in the next few years.
So... what do tight ends do in this offense?
Not a whole lot, which is probably why Babers's staff moved high-quality athlete Trey Dunkleberger over to the other side of the ball (beyond the pressing need at defensive end, of course). Blocking is probably the biggest undertaking for tight ends in this new system, which means Kendall Moore's skillset (as a former offensive linemen) suddenly has an even larger premium on it. When Moore misses time (as he has a lot), you do see a significant downgrade in blocking from the tight end spot. Hopefully he can stay on the field a bit more in 2016, his final year on campus.
What does the passing game look like?
Bubble screens. But good ones, seriously. Ones that actually have blocking involved. Those screens are a big part of the offense along with between-the-tackles runs. And occasionally, those allowed Bowling Green to get some GREAT downfield looks last year, especially for veteran wideout Roger Lewis, who is a pretty good comparison for Steve Ishmael. Ishmael's skill set has shown him adept at catching short-yardage passes, while also being the team's most viable deep threat. If Brisly Estime can develop hands downfield, the two could form a lethal combination... and that's before you even factor in the large collection of "hybrid"-types this team employs.
Speaking of those players. What are they going to do?
To be honest, probably similar things to what they did last year, just in a more mature offensive system. Philips, Strickland and Perkins are going to be used on a lot of screens, along with other short passing routes and the occasional hand-off. Jet sweeps are not in the playbook, so that's probably a relief to most Syracuse football observers.
What of Sean Avant and Alvin Cornelius?
Neither's ever been known for their speed, and they've rarely found consistent playing time throughout their respective Orange careers. They'll get a shot to prove things to Babers this spring. But it's difficult to see their roles expanding under the new system, especially when you look at the various (younger) names above whose skillsets could be seen as a bit more suited for it. Still, can never hurt to add a couple more experienced names to the scouting report for opposing teams.
Will Syracuse finally figure out how to use Jamal Custis?
Perhaps. We've been through the issue with Custis before. Scott Shafer was always really high on him whenever he talked about "surprising" or talented players, yet the team rarely utilized the big, athletic target in games. Even when it seemed like they'd figured out that the goal line jump ball was probably a good play-call for him, Tim Lester's offense never went back to it. Babers's offense probably won't emphasize him, but if you look at the production of Bowling Green's Derek Lee, you'll find a good comparison for how SU could use Custis near the goal line.
Like we said, there's not much different this year vs. last year. Syracuse returns nearly every wide receiver and tight end again, but that doesn't guarantee the results automatically increase -- especially since each players' experience is in two completely different systems before this one. But field time does have value in any case. And we know that there are some promising young playmakers at wideout too. Maybe this is the system that finally gets the most out of them from a production standpoint.