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Syracuse football: Now what?

After a third straight 4-8 season, we’ve got some questions (and answers) going into 2018.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Dino Babers era has been one of optimism, despite the W-L results these first two years. We’ve seen major highs that outweigh the lows. There’s clear progress that helps us forget about the third straight 4-8 season we’ve just experienced.

Dino’s incoming talent for 2018 is projected to be one of the better classes the Syracuse Orange football program has taken in for some time. And it’s full of nationally ranked players (including two four-star offensive linemen).

But despite all of that, yesterday’s bad loss still seemed to provide that creeping question of “now what?”

For despite all of the optimism, we ARE still 4-8 for the third straight season (and second under Babers). Our starting quarterback still hasn’t played a full season in three years, and the offense is a shell of itself without him. Though the defense showed significant progress through the first nine games of the season, we sunk to the depths of 2016 by the time 2017 wrapped up.

You can still believe in Dino Babers’s ability to find success at Syracuse while also asking real questions of the staff and what transpired over the course of the final few games. What happened? And more importantly, what has to happen next?

“Now what?” is a pretty open-ended question, but I figured we could still use it to frame the conversation around Syracuse football going into this offseason and looking ahead to 2018.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive changes need to come in some form

SU loses all three starting linebackers, plus key defensive backs like Devin M. Butler and Jordan Martin (who’d already been out with an injury). So change was inevitable this offseason. However, the adjustment in personnel could also provide new opportunities for this defense to find success.

Earlier in 2017, players were containing opponents, doing the little things to minimize long gains and keeping ball-carriers contained whenever possible. That led to some impressive third down success and a red zone ability that allowed them to keep the Orange in games. The more recent iteration of this defense, however, was going for explosive plays and missing assignments.

That’s not necessarily on the departing seniors, but not being able to lean on Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett could be a needed wake-up call for this group. For all the youth at linebacker, there’s veteran talent all over this defense and they’ll need to step up.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

What stepping up looks like is the question, though. Does the Tampa-2 work? Can it work without experienced linebackers? Is this coaching staff able to make the necessary adjustments to help this personnel work, as they appeared to in the beginning of 2017?

I’m not calling for Brian Ward to be let go, or for anyone else on the defensive staff to leave, either. But this will be a critical offseason for Ward and his assistants as they dictate their own fate. If the Tampa-2 isn’t the answer, how do you make a change on the fly while minimizing the learning curve so as not to derail 2018 as well? If it is the answer, what can the staff do to prepare players better to avoid the collapse we saw this year? Antwan Cordy and Josh Black returning helps. But you can’t just bank on that alone.

Offensive line improvements

Given the fact that all five starters played the entire season, it’s easy to forget that Syracuse was down one player to begin with, in Aaron Roberts. The guard is arguably the second-best offensive lineman on the team behind Cody Conway, and his absence was felt quite a bit in the early part of the season. This group did actually improve as the year went on, but the questions at quarterback derailed what could have been a very productive second half of the season.

With Roberts back for 2018, that’s one piece of the puzzle. But what happens at center, where Airon Servais definitely showed wear and tear? We don’t want to insert potential true freshman like Tyrone Sampson and Qadir White into the rotation, but could they show enough in spring (Sampson’s planning to be there, at least) to forego the redshirts?

As much as we’ve bemoaned the offensive line in recent years (since 2013, really), this group has the makings of a very good unit going forward. Four of five starters are back, and two more players have starting experience. Guys like Liam O’Sullivan, Patrick Davis, Dakota Davis and Mike Clark will all be a year older. There’s real depth here. What does it need to accomplish, though?

First and foremost, protect Eric Dungey. We can ask him to be more careful all we want, but it doesn’t matter if he’s under pressure (he could also hold the ball for a little less time). The other bit, which they already started getting better at this year, is run protection. Over the final five games of 2017, SU averaged less than 4.38 yards per rush just once (vs. Florida State). Syracuse averaged over five yards per carry against both Miami and Wake Forest. Progress has been made and we have veteran ball-carriers like Moe Neal and Dontae Strickland. Let’s get the run game going a bit more.

Someone else has to be ready to run this offense

While we don’t want Dungey to be injured again, he’s missed the end of the last three seasons. It would be foolish not to have someone ready to go in case we need to replace the soon-to-be-senior. Over the past few years, there really hasn’t been a capable substitute. Zack Mahoney played well in spots, but also struggled to pass consistently. Rex Culpepper showed his own ability here and there, but was also mistake-prone in his early action.

Whether the immediate answer is Tommy DeVito or not remains to be seen. But whether it’s him or Culpepper, someone has to be able to take the wheel and drive this offense forward should Dungey miss time in 2018. We’ve seen three seasons in a row go sideways because no one could guide the offense with even half of Dungey’s ability and poise. No one’s expecting Culpepper or DeVito to just mimic Dungey once they’re out there. But the offense can’t collapse in on itself with him on the sidelines.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Dino Babers and his staff have their work cut out for them over the coming months. Along with locking up a strong 2018 class (with luck, many of them in the early signing period), they’ll need to get to work immediately replacing quite a few productive seniors. Plus, with the defensive collapse, there are going to be real demands on improvement there that simply can’t be ignored any longer.

There’s faith in what’s being built at Syracuse, but the end of this season showed that it’s not necessarily all figured out yet. Babers certainly knows this as well, and hopefully takes the late struggles as a challenge to make sure this team doesn’t repeat those same issues yet again. We believe in what’s happened so far, even without much evidence. Now comes the harder part, for both Babers and us as fans.