Syracuse Orange football finalized its 18-member 2018 class on National Signing Day, so now we officially flip the calendar to next season. That starts with spring practice, which will begin on March 3.
Back in December, we took a very early look at the potential offensive and defensive depth charts for 2018. Now, we dig into each position to preview what could happen this spring and how that prepares SU for a critical fall season.
Can the quarterback position take steps forward in 2018?
Who’s on campus?
Everybody, actually, save Zack Mahoney. “The Officer” turned in his badge after his senior season.
Eric Dungey is completely healthy and will be participating in practice. That’s a relief, right off the bat. His ankle isn’t a recurring thing, though his general lack of health at the end of seasons is. Having Dungey back already to lead this offense is spring is going to be critical to bringing this still relatively young team along.
Beyond Dungey, redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito is poised to be in a dogfight with Rex Culpepper for the second-string job. Culpepper’s had game snaps and in his third year with the program, a bit more familiarity with this offense. DeVito was the more highly-regarded recruit, however, and Culpepper was hot and cold in game action last season (60 percent for 518 yards, two TDs and three INTs).
Further down the depth chart, newly-on-scholarship Clayton Welch returns from last year. Also, three-star dual-threat Chance Amie arrived in January. Even without Amie seeing the field in 2018, the spring reps will be beneficial for his long-term development.
Who’s arriving this summer?
No one. Pay attention.
Can Dungey stay healthy?
Always the elephant in the room. Very early in the record-setting QB’s career, Sean warned us to “beware the Eric Dungey mythos.” We never really listened, unfortunately, and neither has Syracuse football. Three different times, Syracuse has had a potential chance to make a bowl heading down the home stretch. And three different times, we’ve failed to do so. Dungey, more than any individual player, has been directly responsible for a lot of the Orange’s successful moments in recent years. His absence has also directly attributed to the lowest of lows we’ve seen.
Coming back this soon from the ankle injury is a good sign. But how does that injury bring us a different quarterback in 2018? We’ve yet to really see his style of play change much through three seasons. Maybe this is the injury that alters things slightly and has him play with a little more care? That foundation’s laid in spring.
Who wins the back-up gig?
When your starter is settled, attention turns to the second-string position. And for Syracuse, it’s a pretty interesting debate between Culpepper and DeVito. If you ask most Orange fans, DeVito’s the choice due to the pedigree he brings in as a blue-chip recruit. However, Culpepper’s experience does count for something, and the fact that he’s been in the system for a few years and has played in-game give him a slight advantage for now.
Just the same, there’s a lot of turnover at receiver, and DeVito certainly has a rapport with at least a few of the younger players poised to move up the depth chart this season. On arm strength alone, expect him to get an extended look in practice. DeVito likely works his way onto the second team by the summer (but even if he doesn’t, there will be a real battle in 2019).
How critical is Dungey to young receivers’ development?
We’ll get into this a whole lot more when covering the receivers. However, SU will be hard-pressed to replace Ervin Philips and Steve Ishmael this year, and that creates some questions around the passing game. Dungey potentially becomes the equalizer there, as the senior passer willing to guide the younger targets along.
It won’t be all freshmen, mind you. Sean Riley, Devin Butler and Ravian Pierce should play primary roles, along with one of Dontae Strickland or Moe Neal. But that’s still a lot of change. Dungey being here this spring is a way to stabilize things and at least start to establish a pecking order at receiver before the summer. If we were faced with high turnover at receiver AND QB, I’d be much more nervous this spring.
Realistically, how little can Dungey run and still remain effective?
We know Dungey has to display some mobility to be at his best. He actually thrives throwing on the run. And his mobility does make him a better passer because he occupies extra defenders with his legs. That’s not really the case for Culpepper or DeVito.
Every year, we’re told Dungey’s going to run less. And every year, he runs just as much, if not more. If SU can develop a real short-yardage threat (Chris Elmore?), that goes a long way toward limiting Dungey’s carries up the gut where the worst hits can occur. He ran the football 143 times last year. If the offensive line looks as good as it did late in 2017, you’d hope that figure can sink to something under 100. Doing so would still keep his rushing ability as a weapon, without putting him in harm’s way.
Can Syracuse reduce turnovers while also continuing at break-neck speed?
Interceptions have climbed from 2015 to 2016 to 2017. You’d hope that those figures don’t rise once again for Syracuse this fall. It’s not that they’re unexpected given the speed of the offense and pure number of plays. It’s that the Orange aren’t scoring enough points to counter those picks.
On the first drive alone last year, Syracuse threw picks in numerous games. Those were back-breaking, especially for a team that was still struggling to score more than 30 points per outing. If they’re not going to score at a clip of 40 or 50 points per game, then turnovers need to come down to help counteract.
Dungey’s accuracy dipped last year, and it could again with major reshuffling at receiver. This spring’s top goal is utilizing a quick release to make immediate and accurate reads. If they can do that early on in the year, that should push everything else forward.