Despite what may have looked like a heavier passing attack in recent weeks, the Syracuse Orange football team has actually been pretty balanced since the start of 2020. SU has 115 passing attempts vs. 133 rushing attempts, and that largely gets evened out when you account for quarterback scrambles and sacks.
But now, with Tommy DeVito seemingly done for the year (or at least the foreseeable future), the offense is going to have to look a little different from what we’ve seen through four weeks of action.
How so? A couple ideas about how Sterlin Gilbert and Dino Babers will adjust the Orange offense:
With DeVito limited for parts of the last few games in 2019, you saw Syracuse lean more heavily on the run game to great effect. The team averaged over four yards per carry in the last four games after doing so just twice in the first nine contests. Emphasizing the rushing attack — as Babers always intends for this offense to — opened up opportunities for the passing game as well. But SU did primarily move the ball on the ground, picking up nearly half of the year’s rushing TDs (seven of 16) in those three games.
Assuming we have Sean Tucker back and healthy, it’s likely the Orange do something similar here. Tucker’s ability to run both inside and out makes him more versatile than other backs we’ve had in recent years, but it would be good to get another runner involved. Maybe that’s Markenzy Pierre, but hopefully it’s Jawhar Jordan if he’s able to come back from his own injury. As intended, the run will be setting up the pass more.
Short passing game
Assuming we see Rex Culpepper under center against Liberty (and Clemson), that means more emphasis on quick, short passes. According to Pro Football Focus, 12 of Culpepper’s 17 passing attempts this year have been between 0 and 10 yards. He’s had some success there — 7-of-12 on those shorter throws — and his strength of rapid decision-making would seem to lean toward the sorts of screens and short routes that the offense hasn’t really utilized well under DeVito (despite him throwing most of his passes close to the line of scrimmage before this past weekend).
When this offense was firing under Eric Dungey, they used the deep ball sparingly, but got under defense’s skin with smart bubble screens and slants to quick players like Ervin Philips and Steve Ishmael. I won’t claim that Syracuse has guys as talented as those two on the roster right now. However, there’s still an example there for what can work to at least keep the ball moving down the field as you (hopefully) pull the defense in with the run game.
Tight end involvement
Christian recently covered how little Syracuse has been using its tight ends this year, much to everyone’s frustration. There was a bit of a breakthrough on Saturday with an impressive 53-yard catch-and-grab from Luke Benson, but beyond that, you’re still seeing tight ends deployed primarily into blocking situations.
Culpepper is quick to throw, but also not as accurate as DeVito and also doesn’t have the same ability to get the ball downfield. That could and should mean more utilization of safety valves, from Tucker out of the backfield (where he’s already been used well here and there this year), to tight ends Benson and Aaron Hackett. Both players are large and fast, and create mismatches with defenders in coverage. Any failure to use these skilled pass-catchers is a major knock on this team’s ability to create effective gameplans around its personnel.
Of course, these ideas seem obvious and are partially dependent on both quarterback effectiveness and (just as important) pass blocking. Without much success doing the latter well this year, even a moderate step forward could make Culpepper or any other Orange QB’s job a whole lot easier — and this offense a much more watchable product. While DeVito wasn’t perfect, he’s the most experienced passer we have in this system. Anything Babers & Co. can do to help simplify things for his replacement would be ideal.