Spring football could still be a ways out for the Syracuse Orange. Yet, we’re never ones to avoid getting ahead of ourselves around here, so it’s natural to dive into what may be coming anyway — even without an idea of when spring ball will begin.
While we usually preview coaches first, the staff wasn’t yet settled when we began this series. Now that it appears we know our 10 coaches for 2021 (or at least we hope that’s the case), we can proceed looking at Dino Babers and his nine assistants. If you’ve missed the other articles in this series, Steve just finished previewing the offensive line last week. We’ve also examined the Orange’s quarterback, running back and wide receiver/tight end position groups as well. Next up:
Will Dino Babers’s coaching changes make a big, needed difference for 2021?
On the more positive end of things, Mike Cavanaugh left Syracuse for Arizona State, opening up the offensive line gig. Cavanaugh appeared to have recruiting success since his arrival a few years ago. But without any real on-field proof of that success turning into anything — and plenty of proof that the group was getting worse by the year — it was in the best interest of all parties to move on.
Negatively for Syracuse, Justin Lustig also left the building. Lustig’s presence as special teams coordinator has been enormous for the Orange having one of the top groups in the country in that department. Losing his prowess there is a tough pill to swallow after he joined Clark Lea’s new staff at Vanderbilt. Notably, offensive analyst Jeff LePak also headed to Vandy after him. Not a coaching role, but it’s also worth mentioning that director of high school relations Ryan Bartow departed to FSU as well.
Crucially, Syracuse had to fill two big holes on the coaching staff and did manage to do that with some new names that are only sort of related to the existing Babers tree.
Terrence Samuel comes to the Orange as the new wide receivers coach, after a one-year stop over at UNLV. Before the Rebels, he was on Michigan State’s staff for nine seasons and coached various NFL Draft picks and former blue-chip players.
Though it doesn’t appear that Syracuse will add a special teams coordinator from outside the staff, they did replace Cavanaugh with an experienced O-line coach. Mike Schmidt comes to CNY after eight years in the same role with San Diego State. Last week, Steve got into some of the changes he’ll bring with him. They sound pretty promising, especially for the run game.
Is Dino Babers on the hot seat?
Comments from last year don’t seem to indicate Babers is on the hot seat following a 1-10 season last fall and 6-17 record over the last two seasons. At the same time, however, admitting as much is a surefire way to harm recruiting.
After netting a 10-3 record in year three with Syracuse, it’s been a rough trip back down the mountain for Babers’s program. We know he was extended after 2018 for an unspecified number of dollars and years (though it’s been hinted that he’s around for at least a few more seasons per that deal). Between this and last offseason, Dino’s made moves on his staff that indicate he’s not content with just letting things stand as-is. At some point, though, they need to produce results.
Realistically, Babers is probably getting past 2021 if this team either a) makes a bowl or b) looks competitive while missing the postseason. There’s an option C where the buyout’s just too much of a hinderance despite meager results. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
What is the staff going to do about special teams?
Right now, the only coach that’s specializing in special teams is analyst Blair Cavanugh, son of departed O-line coach Mike Cavanaugh. LePak was thought to be someome who could step into a special teams role, but obviously left.
One staff shuffle suggestion tossed out there by various parties: Give ace recruiter Nick Monroe the special teams coordinator/assistant head coach title and make Chip West defensive backs coach. Cavanaugh could still assist there while moves are made to help retain Monroe, who’s now the most valuable coach on this staff.
What would we like to see different from the wide receivers?
The last couple years have been a bit rocky for wideouts, largely coached by Lustig (outside) and Reno Ferri (inside receivers and tight ends). Bringing in Samuel, whose track record with big-play outside wideouts should help this offense rediscover some of what it’s lost downfield.
After years of being able to throw it up to a big receiver downfield who could make plays for himself, the last two years have featured smaller wideouts occupying the leading receiver role (Trishton Jackson and then Taj Harris). We know Harris and the whole offense would benefit from being plugged into the slot. And Babers’s recruiting of late has shown an emphasis on bigger pass-catchers. Hopefully Samuel can figure out the best combination of guys to help make the vertical passing game more of a reality again and find the next record-setting receiver on this roster.
A lot of pressure falls to Schmidt right away
Perhaps it’s foolish to put a lot of emphasis on a new position coach right away, but there’s no excuse for the disaster Syracuse’s line has become these past two years. Schmidt will be asked to repair those issues to just a respectable level early on, before elevating this group to average. I think most fans are willing to let that take a little time. We just can’t wait around anymore for the offense to be functional.
Schmidt doesn’t inherit a bare cupboard either. On top of an impressive recruiting group for 2021, Florida transfer Chris Bleich will be eligible to play this fall. And a healthier line should improve a lot of what Syracuse is doing by default. The one possible concern on Schmidt is that SDSU hasn’t been doing a lot of pass-blocking of late with a run-heavy offense. That’s not a bad fit for this year’s Orange team. But long-term returns need a stronger pass game than what SU or the Aztecs have done of late through the air.
How much breathing room will Sterlin Gilbert get?
There were two coaches on the staff that really came under fire in 2020. One of them was Cavanaugh. The other was Gilbert, Babers’s OC whom he’d enjoyed success with at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green, and was supposed to be a natural fit fixing the Syracuse offense.
Be it due to the pandemic, injuries, personnel issues or some combination of those things, Gilbert’s first season at Syracuse was a rough one. Fans probably wouldn’t have minded seeing him replaced this offseason, but it appears he’s back for another round managing the offense and coaching up quarterbacks. I have some faith things will look a little better this fall because they have to. But if they don’t progress much, how long ‘til Babers elects to pull the plug? At this point, a slow start on offense could very well spell doom for this entire staff if they’re not careful. Gilbert needs to bring something noticeably better to the table right away in 2021.