We’re flipping the calendar to 2017 for Syracuse Orange football. That starts with spring practice, which takes place from March 21 through April 22.
Before spring practice gets going, we’re digging into each position to preview what might happen in the coming months, and how that sets up the fall’s upcoming football season.
Will the Orange offensive line show improvement despite losses?
Who’s on campus?
An experienced group of players, really, despite the losses of Jason Emerich, Michael Lasker and Omari Palmer. Injuries took their toll last season, but they also presented valuable opportunities for younger players to get snaps on the line. Many of the underclassmen took their lumps. But that could be a good thing for this season and beyond.
Cody Conway, Colin Byrne, Aaron Roberts, Evan Adams and Jamar McGloster are all back, and it’s likely they’re your starting five. Beyond those names are even more players who either saw the field or have been with the program long enough that they can hop in to make valuable contributions.
AJ Duerig, Donnie Foster and Sam Clausman likely see the field plenty. Redshirt freshmen Sam Heckel, Airon Servais, Liam O’Sullivan and Mike Clark could all get into the mix as well.
SU had one early enrollee on the line for 2017, in Patrick Davis. The Quebec native will have a leg up when it comes to competing for playing time this year (if applicable). Or worst-case, he gets extra time with the speed of this offense, which can only be seen as a good thing.
Who’s arriving this summer?
Just one more lineman in Dakota Davis. Syracuse had loaded up on this position group for the last two or three years, so a two-man class allowed Dino Babers and his staff to focus elsewhere this time around.
Can this group help the run game improve?
Last year’s rushing attack was bad. And while that was partly due to using two smaller backs between the tackles a lot, the offensive line’s lack of push also contributed to a mess there. Until the final game against Pittsburgh (5.07 yards per), the team hadn’t averaged more than four yards per carry in a single outing.
With more experience compared to last year, these players will be used to the tempo this offense runs with. But given the quality of the defensive lines they’ll line up against, it may still be a rough time for Syracuse’s offensive line each week.
Can they keep Eric Dungey upright?
... If they don’t, it would appear unlikely the junior finishes this season healthy.
Syracuse allowed 38 sacks in 2016, which was one of the worst marks in the country (115th out of 128). In the games they kept teams from hitting Dungey (and Zack Mahoney), the offense excelled. You can reference the Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh games specifically there.
But when this team got tired, allowed easy pressure and gave little time for quarterbacks to throw, it was a disaster. Babers’s offense is fast, but it’s a controlled tempo. Your quarterback feeling the defense on top of him within a second of snapping the ball creates chaos.
Some of the struggles could’ve been attributable to youth and inexperience. That won’t be the case anymore if they still can’t protect Dungey this time around. Every player on the line now has extensive starting experience.
Which freshmen could factor in?
As mentioned up top, there are a bunch (six, including the redshirts from last season). And at this point, a lot are Babers recruits. They’re here for a reason, and if the current starters (all holdovers from previous regime) falter, it seems unlikely that Babers lets things spiral if he feels there are better options on the bench.
Heckel seems like an eventual starting left tackle, but with Conway in front of him for now, his best bet may be on the right side. McGloster starts there, but given his struggles with penalties, there’s no guarantee he’s locked in there.
Servais could also get work early on. But don’t count out either Patrick or Dakota Davis to jump in as true freshmen. They’re big bodies who could help this team stay fresh against top D-lines like LSU, Florida State and Clemson. It may be worth using a deep bench to give Syracuse any shot.
What’s the impact of experience on this young group?
We’ve touched on some of this above, but it’s a combination of factors: the speed at which Babers’s offense operates, the play-calling, getting used to game situations, acclimation to the pounding offensive lines take in the ACC, etc.
You can’t just walk into an FBS program and excel on the line. That’s why so many players redshirt in this position group. You have to add muscle weight, develop an understanding of your role within the new offense and learn how to play against much better, faster defenders than you were used to in high school.
The last point goes double for Syracuse players, many of whom aren’t facing blue-chippers each week. Conway was the only linemen on the roster ready to jump in from day one. And even in his case, it was out of necessity.
What else do you want to see from SU’s young offensive line in 2017?