For the Syracuse Orange football team, the spring gives a chance to see what they have left from top to bottom on their roster, but it also can lead to some new issues arising. Having the entire squad back and practicing allows you to integrate some of the early enrollees, and take note of where your returning underclassmen are in their development.
The Orange have come a long way in the development of a deeper squad under the watch of coach Dino Babers, but according to Babers himself, the squad may be only an injury or two away from rough times. Babers mentioned his 2016 and 2017 teams, which, while talented, were hit brutally by the injury bug and as a result had to rely on very young and inexperienced players in key positions.
As it was in the aforementioned seasons, quarterback is definitely one of those positions that the lack of depth is quite apparent. Outside of Tommy DeVito, your options are redshirt senior Clayton Welch and redshirt junior Rex Culpepper. While we have three-star recruit David Summers coming in as a true freshman, none of the options really scream depth behind DeVito. Contrast this with last season, where Tommy was the backup to Eric Dungey, and you knew even if he went down that the Orange would be in capable hands.
Babers during his press conference on the weekend, mentioned that “there [were] a lot of players, with a lot of experience, that weren’t on the field today, and all of those guys will be back in the fall.” What we saw in the spring game may not be completely indicative of what Syracuse will be able to put on the field in the fall, however, it’s a good baseline to start some comparisons off of.
Looking into the roster, you can note a few positions that need little-to-no work. The running backs have capable options behind Moe Neal. The second defensive line unit is still pretty deep. The secondary returns a lot of their quality and should be developing new talent. Even though they are young, the wide receivers return a full two deep of athleticism and talent.
Beyond quarterback, the biggest question marks likely lie at offensive line and linebacker. Both positions lose some very quality starters from the unit, and have to replace with relative inexperience.
This was quite evident with the offensive line play during the spring game. Starters Dakota Davis and Sam Heckel were both out injured, and Patrick Davis, who will likely contribute at tackle was down as well. One nice thing that that provides in a non-regular season environment, according to Babers, is that it gives players “more opportunities to be a one, and the threes more opportunities to be a two, which means they’re getting more reps and it’s going to build more depth on our football team when we get to the fall.”
Having to rely on starting tackles that had a combined zero playing time prior to last Saturday seems to be less than optimal when the games start counting, but Syracuse is three injuries away from that happening on a line that has had that many injuries hit it a few times over the past decade. Last season the team in general stayed healthy. Of the offensive line, all five starters, plus Sam Heckel, the sixth man, played in all 13 games. That’s a stroke of luck to have the entirety of the line healthy the entire season. If there’s any chance that the unit stays 100% healthy this year, the Orange will be fine.
Currently you’re looking at likely Heckel at center, Evan Adams and Dakota Davis at guard, and Airon Servais and incoming transfer Ryan Alexander at tackle. All of those players are solid, but behind them, you’re immediately into Austin Chandler and Quadir White at guard, and some combination of Patrick Davis, redshirt freshman Carlos Vettorello and true freshman Anthony Red at tackle. The combined, on-field experience of all five of those mentioned backup lineman are seven games, all by Patrick Davis and all primarily on special teams. It was evident in the spring game, with Vettorello and Red getting the nod at tackle. They put up a valiant effort and showed some promise against elite competition — in this case, their own teammates in Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman, who will hold their own with any edge rushers in the conference. But there’s still more progress to see.
At linebacker, the Orange have turned over their corps repeatedly over the last several years, truly embracing a “next man up” mentality there. This year will be no different, with seniors Andrew Armstrong and Lakiem Williams taking up the mantle. However, behind the two seniors, your roster looks like a single redshirt junior, three sophomores (two redshirt) and five freshmen (two redshirt). That breakdown doesn’t exactly scream “experienced” to the fans. There’s some promise in that depth, like Juan Wallace, the rising true sophomore who was getting some looks up the depth chart, or Tyrell Richards in a similar position, but there’s no real gauge to what the quality is actually like behind the two starters until the role is thrust upon the team.
Overall the entire team could do to get a bit older. The ability to redshirt more players moving forward will allow more development in a lot of these thin positions. Moving from a true freshman at a spot on the depth chart to a redshirt freshman in the same position really changes the perception of that player. One more year of college weight training, along with one more year in the system, can drastically change the talent level that a team is dealing with.
That can be the difference between a middle of the pack team, versus the top programs in the league. In the post-scrimmage press conference, Babers himself noted that “[we] need to have the depth that the teams that we have to challenge for conference championships have, and we’re not there.” Even though the team isn’t there yet, it is apparent that the Orange are moving their squad depth in the right direction and should be more competitive moving forward, even when hit with injuries or other setbacks.