There’s been plenty of hand wringing around the Syracuse Orange football program through six games, and rightfully so, in many regards. Going into the season, many had top-25 expectations around this team, and yet, we’re 3-3 and could be walking quite the tightrope to bowl eligibility with just six games remaining.
As we look out over that ledge toward what happens next, we’re issuing report cards for the team’s position groups. These are partially based on performance, part on how things look relative to expectations. They’re completely subjective as well.
Going into 2019, we were looking forward to seeing Dino Babers’s offense as it was intended, with a pocket passer under center and the big-armed Tommy DeVito filling the starting role. What we’ve seen has been... mixed, to say the least. Though DeVito’s put up some great numbers to-date (1,534 yards, 65.5% completion rate, 12 touchdowns) that are on pace to be some of the best single-season marks in school history, performances have been uneven while he’s struggles with pressure, progressions and some decision-making.
There are offensive line issues (we’ll get to them) that cause some of these issues and the apparent upper body injury he’s dealing with right now, so certain aspects of this grade certainly take that into account, too. He’s also proven himself to be a more adept runner than we anticipated. Not that we wanted him to run much at all, of course. But he can pick up yardage on the ground when needed.
With or without an offense line, there’s an opportunity going forward for DeVito to cut down on mental errors (grounding calls, bad picks, taking too many sacks), and a necessity for him to step up into the pocket a bit more. There’s also the issue of the team not running at the tempo needed to be effective. That all comes with increased experience. We’ll see how quickly he can apply that accumulated experience so far in the second half of the season, though.
One of the biggest reasons for last year’s resurgence was the run game. Eric Dungey was a big part of that clearly, but the offensive line also blocked well and running backs Moe Neal and Dontae Strickland both carried the ball really well too.
This year, the run game’s vanished — in part because of a lack of success (averaging 3.06 yards per carry) and part because of a lack of real commitment to it. Syracuse is averaging 39.1 carries per game on paper, but 26 rushes are DeVito sacks. So that number’s more like 34.8, which is a significant drop from last season.
Neal and Abdul Adams haven’t looked great between the tackles, but both are averaging at least 3.75 yards per rush. That’s a sustainable number that should mean a first down every three runs. But play-calling has abandoned the ground game pretty quickly most games (except when it was inexplicably dedicated to it down two scores late vs. NC State), so we’ve rarely had a chance to see what happens when the ground game’s actually established.
Where running backs have had a better outlook than perhaps people thought was with regard to the passing game. Neal’s finally become the screen option we always thought he could be (20 catches for 207 yards) and Adams has 10 grabs for 98 yards. Without an offensive line to protect DeVito much, we’ll probably need to see more of that.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
This was the group that was supposed to be the strength of this offense. And yet, we’re seeing a smaller and smaller group of pass-catchers conceivably get involved, and a lot of communications issues tell the story of the first half of the season.
Of Syracuse’s 99 receptions by a receiver or tight end on the year, 33 belong to Trishton Jackson (to go with 499 yards and six TDs) and 22 are Sean Riley’s (for just 169 yards and a score). Taj Harris has been hurt a bit, and has also found himself marginally utilized. Nykeim Johnson has 12 catches, but for just 31 yards.
I don’t want to discredit Jackson for the work he’s done here. Despite a rough start vs. Liberty, the Michigan State transfer’s caught at least six passes in four of the subsequent games, and he’s surpassed 100 receiving yards three different times. It’s likely that a lot of those numbers (and a lot of this offense’s numbers) have come in garbage time and two-minute drills, though. Not exactly a picture of consistency.
A surprising development, however, has been Aaron Hackett’s utilization as a receiver. That’s also inconsistent, sure, but more due to how often he needs to be pulled in as a blocker. His 14 catches for 110 yards and three touchdowns are just a glimpse of the sort of weapon he could be within this attack.
The common thread in all of the sections above is the offensive line. It was always the biggest question mark coming in, if we’re being honest with ourselves. And it remains the biggest question now. Replacing three of five starters, the Orange also plugged in players like Sam Heckel (center) and Airon Servais (tackle) at positions they hadn’t started at for SU. Things looked rough against Liberty in the first half of the opener, and that was before Heckel got hurt. Since then, Servais shifted back to center, and we’ve plugged in several freshman and sophomores as starters. You know the results.
For those that don’t: 26 sacks and 47 tackles for loss allowed, plus 3.06 yards per carry for this team. It’s created an offense that’s leaned heavily on the pass, and it’s made things pretty predictable and a whole lot tougher for a scheme that’s predicated on tempo, versus true complexity.
This offseason, Dino Babers said that SU was “as fast as (the Orange’s) slowest lineman.” Well, this year’s reduced tempo is a testament to that theory. Even just a handful of snaps will probably tell you everything you need to know. The line’s collapsing from the outside a lot of the time, and without DeVito stepping up, he’s cornered and sacked quickly. When SU’s utilizing the run, they can’t get the requisite push in the middle. False starts are a theme.
The hope is that Heckel’s eventual (potential) return could fix a lot of this, and recent history tells us that Orange lines that have struggled have managed to turn things around at least a little in the second half of the year. But they also had a little more experience than this team does. The best thing we can say to this point is that there’s room for improvement.
Too harsh? Too nice? Defense and special teams tomorrow, but feel free to share your thoughts on the offensive side of the ball below.