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Syracuse football 2020 season report card: Quarterbacks

Well that was unexpected.

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NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

What else is there left to say about an injury-riddled 1-10 Syracuse Orange football season that saw numerous injuries and opt-outs, a lot of doubts emerge and even more questions start to push this fan base to the edge? Plenty, it would end up. This is TNIAAM, after all.

As is customary, we’re going to be providing position group recaps on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball (plus special teams), with grades attached. This week is offense. Then we’ll take a break next week for the flurry of early signing period news before resuming during the week of December 21 for the defense.

First up this week:


After a rough 2019 for Tommy DeVito at QB, there were high hopes that an improved offensive line and a new coordinator would help power a much better passing game in 2020. Of course, things didn’t go as planned given (gestures at the last year). Not only was the offensive line potentially worse, but play-calling sputtered, DeVito’s abilities didn’t progress and then Tommy wound up hurt by the second half of the Duke game in early October.

First, we’ll take a quick look at the performance of all three Syracuse starters from this season, then get to the summary of the position at the end.

A quarterback being under siege is never ideal, but for DeVito, it was a death sentence. Pro Football Focus gave him a 37.5 grade (out of 100) when under pressure, and he was sacked 21 times in less than four full games. That was a line problem, in part, but also a sign that he still wasn’t going through his progressions quickly enough to get the ball out. Making matters worse, the line also couldn’t run block, which put all of the onus on the passing game for moving the ball.

NCAA Football: Duke at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Sterlin Gilbert’s early-season play-calling was also uninspired, relying on just deep balls or short bail-out screens instead of using quick, short passes as a key to opening up more downfield — as Gilbert wound up calling for Rex Culpepper later in the season, to some success. I’d contend Gilbert started to turn the corner a little on play-calling over DeVito’s final two games and Tommy seemed to as well.

After throwing for a combined 144 yards in the first two games, Devito had 194 against Georgia Tech and 255 vs. Duke before his injury. These weren’t numbers that lit the world on fire, and the accuracy definitely wasn’t there (he only completed 50% of his throws on the season). But you saw progress that seemed to indicate something was clicking better; perhaps for both him and the man calling plays.

When things transitioned to Culpepper, Syracuse’s passing game got more decisive (Culpepper has a much quicker release than DeVito). But also almost entirely focused on screens with little opportunity to go downfield given Rex’s lack of arm strength save a few choice throws here and there. Further still, the line still put constant pressure on him. And he was more turnover-prone, Culpepper threw a pick on 4.2% of throws (just a little more than was the case for Tommy this year), but also accounted for several fumbles — and frequently lost yards by running out of bounds instead of just throwing the ball away.

On the year, Rex was 94-of-190 (49.5%) passing for 1,028 yards, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. While DeVito gets hammered for his performance under pressure, Culpepper struggled even more, with a 23.2 rating from PFF on 9-of-32 passing and 12 sacks. There’s also that whole fourth down spike thing, which... it seems like has been covered enough to just leave it there. Culpepper did understand how to find his favorite targets to some extent, frequently getting the ball to Taj Harris and Anthony Queeley. Once he opted elsewhere, though, it was anyone’s guess what would happen.

Gilbert did a better job scripting plays for Culpepper, which may have helped the offense look better out of the gate in later games — even if it didn’t actually lead to points. With Culpepper and JaCobian Morgan, you did see a dip in production in the drives immediately following those early scripts.

Of course, Morgan’s also dealing with the smallest sample size here, too. The true freshman excited Orange fans out of the gate, going 7-for-7 on a late drive vs. Wake Forest, then battled Boston College admirably enough in a 16-13 loss at the Dome. His numbers didn’t blow anyone away — 31-of-49 for 285 yards, two TDs and two INTs — but the offense did look to have more play-making ability for the game and a half he wound up handling QB duties before he was knocked out of the Louisville contest. Though would note that things looked disastrous across the board vs. the Cardinals.

Again, smaller sample size, but Morgan had better ratings than Culpepper on all types of dropbacks. He was also better than DeVito under pressure (though was also sacked seven times).

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Though Syracuse played one fewer game this year, this was still the worst passing season of the Dino Babers era by about 900 yards. Tight end usage was non-existent and screens went from not being used in a smart way to combat pressure, to being used to little effect. Even without DeVito in, this was still a one- or two-read scheme that crumbled when forced to improvise. That’s not sustainable when dealing with a poor offensive line and hot-and-cold run game.

We’ll get into the offensive line more later this week, but without fixing that group and improving play-calling, there’s only so much the quarterback position can do. Similarly, the QB spot failing to step up is going to derail the rest.

At the moment, DeVito’s the likely starter heading into next year, though he should be pushed by Morgan, and hopefully we see a transfer coming in the door too. This offense isn’t doing anything until we see both improvement and consistency under center, however, whether it’s from someone currently on the roster or not. More than any other position, what happens here dictates whether the Babers era goes past 2021.

Grade: D