Perhaps you’ve already seen enough of the 2021 Syracuse Orange football season, but you know this site by now. When have we ever simply walked away from middling football. So for the next two weeks, you’ll be getting position-by-position report cards looking at where Syracuse succeeded — and also failed to, in at least a few regards.
First up, of course, is the beleaguered quarterback position. We’ll be handling the rest of the offense as well this week, before moving onto the defense and special teams next week. So hope you’re ready for subjective ad-hoc grading — and maybe you even have some of your own to share.
While we knew that Syracuse was going to be a run-focused team in 2020, we truly didn’t understand to what extent that would be the case until the first couple games. Gone was the pass-happy approach that led the way for the Orange in Dino Babers’s early days as head coach. And that, most of all, is probably what drove the early-season quarterback change from incumbent starter Tommy DeVito to Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader.
To be clear, it’s not as if DeVito was without fault there. But play-calling certainly didn’t help either.
DeVito was just 32-of-52 for 388 yards, a touchdown and two picks over the course of three games. He likely would’ve put up a lot more against Albany if not for getting pulled early to get Shrader some reps. But that’s neither here nor there given the overall body of work dating back to 2020 struggles. The line, play-calling issues and his own struggles in the pocket simply took too much of a toll and that was the end of his tenure as starter.
Shrader took his place by the Liberty game in week four, and while he would do plenty in the weeks that followed to show he was a more effective play-caller than DeVito had been, he didn’t necessarily do so before being handed the starting gig... in contrast to the QB competition Babers seemed to portray at the onset of the season that claimed the best player would play.
After going 11-of-15 for 190 passing yards, a TD and an INT (plus 42 rushing yards and two TDs) against Albany, he was just 6-of-15 for 77 passing yards (with 53 yards and two more scores on the ground) against Liberty in a narrow win. He showed flashes of play-making in games against Florida State, Wake Forest, Clemson and Virginia Tech — most notable in late-game situations including a game-winning drive vs. the Hokies — but overall, his play at the position was inconsistent and SU would spend long stretches falling victim to repeated three-and-outs.
As we know now, the bottom really fell out over the course of the final four games, for a variety of reasons including offensive line injuries, Chris Elmore being out and an air of predictability that set in around the play-calling... plus a simple inability to throw the football, whether under pressure or not.
Despite the week nine win against Boston College, Shrader amassed just 143 total yards against the Eagles, with a third of those coming on a single run. When Syracuse got back from the bye, things really took a turn, with the lone exceptions being a couple drives against Pitt this past Saturday.
Shrader finished the final four games just 40-of-76 for 391 yards and two TDs, with more than half of all of those totals (and both TDs) coming in the Pitt game. With teams adjusted to his running ability — and a frequent RPO look where he’d roll out to right — he was also more contained on the ground later in the year against better defenses. Including sack yardage, Shrader had just 189 rushing yards over the final four weeks; an average of 2.7 yards per carry.
While Shrader’s midseason impact can’t be discounted, it also needs perspective, and an honest look at his passing shortcomings. We thought we were getting a dual-threat not unlike Eric Dungey when Shrader committed last offseason. Instead, we saw a running quarterback.
On the year, Shrader passed for 1,445 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions while completing 52.6% of his throws. His rushing stats came out to 781 yards and 14 touchdowns. Clearly the rushing stats are very good, but the passing totals leave much to be desired. He was also just 3-6 as a starter. While we can give credit for the narrow losses mid-year, we also have to deduct points for the three late blowouts, which are at least partly due to an offense that couldn’t adjust.
Now, Shrader’s not the only reason for that lack of adjustment, and it’s accurate to point out that the person most responsible for the offensive collapse — Sterlin Gilbert — is no longer with the program. Still, we have to evaluate quarterback play on what we actually saw on the field. And unfortunately, the position fell short for the third straight season (even if improved from last year’s depths), hence why Babers is firmly on the hot seat.
There’s something to work with here with Shrader and the right offensive coordinator hire, I suppose. But in reality, this offense is going to be handcuffed unless Syracuse’s quarterback can throw the football. That shouldn’t be this difficult given Sean Tucker’s presence in the backfield. Whether it’s Shrader or someone else at QB, all eyes will be on how the passing game comes along in 2022.