Syracuse football opened its spring practice on Tuesday, the first of 14 sessions before closing practice with its annual spring scrimmage on April 22.
The Orange are coming off of an inconsistent, but promising, 4-8 season. Syracuse’s 2016 campaign featured disappointing losses to Wake Forest and NC State, but also an encouraging win over No. 16 Virginia Tech (the Hokies were ranked No. 17 at the time, but rose one spot to No. 16 in the final AP Poll).
In addition to Syracuse’s inconsistent finish, which featured four straight losses to close the season, the Orange face an even more uncertain future thanks to the departure of former running backs coach Mike Hart and several key contributors from last year’s team – including record-breaking wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo.
As Syracuse begins preparing for the upcoming 2017 season, let’s take a look at some of the important questions we hope get answered this spring.
Who will replace Amba Etta-Tawo and his numbers?
The simple answer is, sadly, no one. Despite having to catch passes from three different quarterbacks, Etta-Tawo produced the greatest single-season in Syracuse history. In his lone season at Syracuse, the graduate transfer set new program records for receptions, 94, and receiving yards, 1,482. He also hauled in 14 touchdowns, including a single-game record five scores against Pittsburgh.
While no single player will be able to duplicate those numbers, there will now be plenty of balls to go around following the departure of both Etta-Tawo and Brisly Estime.
The most obvious candidate who should see an uptick in production is Steve Ishmael. The junior wide receiver is one of the most talented players on the roster, he was a four-star recruit coming out of high school, but has yet to turn that talent into consistent production. Playing second fiddle to Etta-Tawo, Ishmael hauled in 48 receptions for 559 yars and one touchdown last season.
Two other options include Jamal Custis and Devin C. Butler, both of whom saw limited playing time last season due to injury. While Custis didn’t play a snap last season and has caught just five passes in his career, the junior’s 6-foot-5, 224-pound frame is a quarterback’s dream in the red zone. Butler played in just five games as a freshman last season, catching two passes for 14 yards, but is a versatile threat due to his size (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) and speed. Butler was rated three stars and the No. 61 athlete in the Class of 2016 by ESPN.
Erv Phillips may also see a few more balls thrown his way, but after starting all of last season at inside receiver and finishing with 90 receptions for 822 yards and six touchdowns, it’s unlikely he’ll see a substantial increase in production, even with Etta-Tawo and Estime graduating.
Who will be the backup quarterback?
Eric Dungey – if he remains healthy – will be Syracuse’s starting quarterback, that much is clear. However, Dungey’s backup is anything but certain.
Senior Zack Mahoney will most likely be given the first crack at the job. Mahoney served as Dungey’s primary backup for the majority of last season and is listed as such on Syracuse’s first 2017 two-man depth chart.
Mahoney started Syracuse’s final three games after Dungey suffered a season-ending injury against Clemson in Week 9, throwing for 826 yards and eight touchdowns to just four interceptions. A large portion of Mahoney’s production, however, came in Syracuse’s offensive shootout 76-61 loss to Pitt, where Mahoney threw for 440 yards and five touchdowns.
While Mahoney showed promise in Syracuse’s record-setting season finale, he will face stiff competition from redshirt freshman Rex Culpepper. Unlike Mahoney, who joined the team as a walk-on in 2015, Culpepper was a touted high school prospect. He was rated three stars by every major scouting service and rated the No. 43 pro-style quarterback in the Class of 2016 by 247sports. As a junior (he missed his senior season to injury), Culpepper threw for 2,016 yards and 20 touchdowns to just eight interceptions, and rushed for 360 yards and an additional six scores.
Although incoming freshman Tommy DeVito is certainly an option, it’s likely Syracuse coach Dino Babers will elect to redshirt his four-star quarterback and have him sit and learn behind Dungey and company this season before taking over in a year or two.
Who will be Syracuse’s starting defensive backs?
The Orange secondary was one of the worst units in all of college football last year. Syracuse ranked No. 114 in total passing yards allowed (3,313) and No. 117 in passing yards allowed per game (276.1).
While a large reason for its poor numbers was due to injuries and Syracuse’s high-paced offense, which forced the defense to be on the field more often than most teams’, the secondary as a whole still played rather poorly.
Syracuse’s secondary should look considerably different next season, as redshirt-junior free safety Antwan Cordy is most likely the lone defensive back whose starting position is 100 percent secure. The other three starting jobs are pretty much up for grabs.
While the Orange return starters Cordell Hudson, cornerback, and Rodney Williams, strong safety, they also retain talented young players such as sophomores Scoop Bradshaw and Evan Foster, who each could push for more playing time.
In addition, Syracuse added two graduate transfers who have the ability to start from Day 1 in Devin Butler (Notre Dame) and Jordan Martin (Toledo). Syracuse also signed JUCO safety Mykelti Williams, a former Notre Dame commit, who could vie for the starting safety spot alongside Cordy.
In addition to the three listed above, what other questions do you hope to have answered by the end of spring practice? Let us know in the comments section below.