I’ve been doing these spring football previews for years, yet this is the weirdest iteration yet. Not only do we not know if or when spring football really happens for the Syracuse Orange, but we also don’t have a full coaching staff, have a regime possibly on the hot seat and also the program’s first real QB battle in years. So yeah, things are interesting, to say the least.
We usually start these previews with the coaching staff, but with SU still looking for an offensive line and/or special teams coach, we’re instead starting with quarterbacks as we preview each position group on the roster (and specifically, on campus this spring). Once SU fills out the staff, we can circle back there. In the meantime, we lead off with:
All eyes are on the quarterback position to fix this offense
Rex Culpepper called it a career after playing extensively as a fifth-year senior last year. He completed 94-of-190 passes for 1,028 yards, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. It’s going to be hard to forget the fourth down spike, but diminishing his entire career to that moment is also disingenuous.
Walk-on Drew Gunther has also departed, transferring to Bowling Green.
Who’s on campus?
Quite a few players — chief among them are two players that started games last year, Tommy DeVito and JaCobian Morgan. DeVito completed 50% of his passes for 593 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions, but also seemed to start hitting a better stride right before getting injured. Morgan, a true freshman last year, played on a more limited basis yet completed 63% of his throws for 285 yards, two TDs and two picks.
There will be a lot of focus on whether or not DeVito is able to hold onto the starting role in 2021, but that’s likely due more to the arrival of Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader. As a starter for parts of 2019, Shrader had 1,757 total yards and 14 touchdowns, plus five INTs. He was an exciting playmaker in a similar mold to Eric Dungey (half of the SU fan base just went from six to midnight), and if the Orange O-line issues haven’t been addressed sufficiently, his mobility will be needed.
Shrader is one of two new quarterbacks to join the program this spring along with three-star signee Justin Lamson, who wound up enrolling early. Lamson figures to be in the mix competing for the starting gig as well, but the prevailing wisdom has this being an ongoing offseason battle between DeVito and Shrader.
Dillon Markiewicz is one of two additional scholarship QBs on campus, but attempted just one pass last year. David Summers is the other, and has yet to take a snap. Walk-on Luke MacPhail is on the roster as well, though the glut of scholarship players in front of him puts opportunities at a premium.
Who’s arriving this summer?
No one, to our current knowledge. With Lamson enrolling early, that’s it for the QB position.
What does DeVito need to do to keep the starting role?
Of course, this also assumes he’s being viewed as the incumbent starter at this point. While DeVito came to Syracuse with a lot of hype and obvious arm talent, a lack of protection and struggles both in terms of accuracy and going through his progressions has led to underwhelming returns. We can spend all day debating who’s most at fault there — DeVito himself, play-calling, the line — but there’s a need for Tommy to show he deserves to keep the starting role here in his third year as the potential top QB on the depth chart.
Some changes that would be ideal: Quicker decision-making, more downfield accuracy, utilization of tight ends, finding receivers in the middle of the field and (perhaps most importantly) stepping up into the pocket to deliver throws. Again, not all of that is entirely up to him. But DeVito seems to be working heavily on what is addressable this offseason. He has an advantage of more time with the playbook, but... it’s debatable how much mastery he had over it to this point given the results of the last two years on offense.
Ultimately, he needs to inspire faith — both from coaches and teammates — that he can run this offense as it’s intended. Dino Babers has given him the benefit of the doubt to-date. That doesn’t appear to be the case here in 2021.
What does Garrett Shrader need to do to take on the starting role?
Well for starters, at least some of the things mentioned above for DeVito. At a minimum, Shrader will need to display a mastery of Syracuse’s offense to a greater extent than what DeVito’s displayed since the start of 2019. That means running this system at tempo, using the full field, making quick decisions and improvising where needed. Even a better O-line this year probably doesn’t mean a Syracuse QB is dealing with a clean pocket all season. Shrader’s ability to make plays with his legs, and throw on the run, should come in handy.
While the focus for Shrader will be on mobility, we shouldn’t ignore his passing talent as well. We dug into this a bit during the offseason, but he does have downfield throwing capabilities and opening that up will be crucial for whichever player is under center for the Orange.
How does Syracuse’s passing game need to look different this year vs. last?
One of the biggest issues last year — and was certainly due to the O-line issues, among other things — was a lack of tempo. Syracuse ran fewer than 60 players per game last year, which was absolutely miserable to watch and the results looked similarly poor. SU used some tempo and more screens early in games when plays were scripted, but that was largely out the window by the end of the first quarter.
Any Syracuse QB needs to push the tempo, make quicker decisions and exploit defensive mismatches in ways the passing game has done very little of in recent years. This team doesn’t have superior talent at skill positions, so with a pretty basic scheme, speed is the only real differentiating point. Failing to run 75 or more plays per game is a failure for this offense by default.
Are we finally going to see a run-first offense?
We’ll get into this more with the running backs preview, but Sean Tucker could finally give us the lead back we need to actually funnel this offense — as intended — through the traditional rushing attack. One of the biggest issues for the last two years has been a complete reliance on the passing game to move the ball, putting too much onus on the QB to make plays, while also making the offense fairly predictable.
If we get what we’re expecting out of Tucker and an improved line, whoever wins the Orange QB job could wind up looking better because they’re not expected to carry as much of the load. While Dungey was at his best in this offense when the traditional run game was effective, the play-calling also relied heavily on his own mobility and how he improvised. Looking back to Babers’s time at Bowling Green with Matt Johnson is a better example of how he directly benefited from a strong rushing attack that opened up opportunities for him downfield.