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Why didn’t Syracuse football utilize more screens last year?

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It’s one way to combat constant pressure, yet... the Orange failed to utilize it much

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that the Syracuse Orange passing game struggled at times in 2019, and for a variety of reasons.

First-time starter Tommy DeVito failed to go through his progressions here and there, and stared down targets. DeVito was also under pressure for most of the first nine games before offensive line changes helped a bit (but not before Tommy had already been injured by the constant pounding). SU’s inside receivers also faltered considerably, and play-calling failed to adjust.

If you’re looking for a reason that Syracuse made an offensive coordinator change this offseason, perhaps the above helps shed some light.

What also sheds some light: Recent tweets from ESPN’s David Hale, who’s been previewing ACC teams on Twitter and has gone into detail on various positions. Among the more interesting notes are a few around the Orange passing game. For starters:

As Hale notes, DeVito was plenty capable when not under pressure. Even without that proof, you probably saw as much with your own eyes last year as Tommy looked like almost an entirely different QB when he had a clean pocket. The insane thing was just how much he struggled when pressure came (potentially due to how quickly it arrived — but also, his lack of progressions meant he didn’t have options ready to throw to).

Still one way he could’ve dealt with that was utilizing screen passes more. However, that didn’t happen much (and again, could be a product of not going through progressions).

These numbers should be jarring to you, but you probably could’ve guessed them as well. Slot receivers Nykeim Johnson and Sean Riley basically disappeared in 2019, but that’s partly a chicken-or-egg situation. Did they vanish because of play-calling, or did play-calling and passing struggles help them vanish?

One would think they were both perfect solutions to the pressure issue, serving as safety valves for a young quarterback. Yet, it didn’t happen. Same goes for Moe Neal, who still wound up catching 29 passes, but still could’ve hauled in many more. You may recall the team utilizing him very well on a single drive vs. Clemson, but... beyond that, minimal consistency.

DeVito also threw just 46 screens, which was a little over half of what Eric Dungey did. For as much as Dungey did not have the same downfield arm and accuracy as DeVito, he did have an ability to make a quick decision. Quite often, that decision was to run. But when it wasn’t, he found players like Riley, Nykeim Johnson and previously Ervin Philips to take advantage of pursuit. Dungey also knew how to use bigger receivers in slot roles at times. Both Steve Ishmael and Amba Etta-Tawo thrived in small spaces when called upon, and Dungey knew how to find them.

We’re not asking DeVito to be Dungey. He can’t be, and that’s no knock on him. However, combined with play-calling that better emphasizes short passes and screens, DeVito (and this offense) has the potential to improve significantly just by making quicker decisions that find players in the slot. Combine that with an offensive line that figures to be improved from what we saw last year, and we could see some impressive strides with minimal tweaks.

New OC Sterlin Gilbert should have plenty at his disposal now too, though. Johnson returns and could rebound. Jawhar Jordan figures to be a capable jack-of-all-trades, and would fit the Philips-type role quite well. Courtney Jackson could be a slot option as well, along with numerous other younger pass-catchers.

So to get back to the original question: Why didn’t Syracuse football utilize more screen last year? I’d contend it’s a combination of things — DeVito, line, play-calling, receiver struggles — that have all been addressed by this point. That doesn’t mean those issues are gone (DeVito, in particular, will have to progress to make this work and his development is the key part here). But things appear to be looking up.