Are you feeling anxious? Excited? Easily distracted or simply filled with dread by the fact that the Syracuse Orange football team kicks off in just eight days?
If so, you’re not alone. As someone who’s been covering this team ad nauseam for nearly a decade, I can tell you there are many parts of me that very much want the season to start ASAP, while the rest... could probably wait a few weeks. Syracuse football is currently filled with a ton of uncertainty — far more of it than I would’ve assumed back in December 2018 — and that’s a cause for worry, consternation and usually, fan aggravation that winds up heading my way at some point.
We’ll get to that rancor more next week. But while you’re hopefully coasting into your last weekend until December without severe heartburn, I wanted to highlight some of the biggest questions for this team before game week starts for next Saturday’s matchup with the Ohio Bobcats.
Full disclosure: We may or may not have answers to these right now, and many won’t have answers until later in the season.
Who’s at quarterback?
Dino Babers usually keeps things pretty close to the vest (and perhaps a bit too close at times), so it shouldn’t surprise that he’s said the QB decision may not come until kickoff vs. Ohio. An experienced Babers observer knows this to likely be scuttlebutt, however, and it would frankly be a shock if anyone but Tommy DeVito takes the opening snap for Syracuse.
That’s not to doubt Garrett Shrader, or even doubt that he’ll appear during week one. But as Steve discussed earlier this week, we know where this is going based on Babers’s comments alone. And no “OR” on Monday’s depth chart is going to convince us otherwise... at least until DeVito potentially struggles over the course of the first couple weeks.
Will we see a healthy line in week one?
Offensive line health has been a major problem over the last two years, especially when coupled with inexperience. This year, the team is supposed to have an improved line due to both a coaching change (SDSU’s Mike Schmidt comes aboard), year-over-year depth chart cohesion, Florida transfer Chris Bleich’s addition.
However, Dakota Davis has been dealing with a leg injury during camp and Bleich was sick for a week. That doesn’t stop either from being ready to go next week. But it does create a new concern when a game against Ohio’s front should provide a great, early opportunity to get this rushing attack going.
What will this offense look like early?
Babers is notorious for keeping the offense simpler in early weeks — though he’s not the only coach to do so — and while that may work most years, I’d argue we don’t have that luxury in 2021. The first two games are against what should be a pesky Bobcats squad and Rutgers. Sure, don’t empty the playbook (or lack thereof, in SU’s case). But if this team is going to be using more tight ends, or zone read or pre-snap motion that keeps opponents off-balance (plus, hey, maybe tempo again?!), fans are going to be anxious to see some of that in week one.
Syracuse’s staff should be anxious to see it too, to be honest, since they still need this group to execute on it. We haven’t seen DeVito do much of that since 2019 (you could argue the Duke game was the only one where the offense looked competent with him under center last year), and this team has had too much of a revolving door on offense to feel like anyone can just jump right into new concepts in week four (vs. Liberty) after avoiding them for the first three games.
Can the D-line get a bigger push up front?
Senior defensive lineman Josh Black held himself accountable for some of last year’s 1-10 record. And while I wouldn’t echo that sentiment, I would say that a VERY veteran line should be able to get a better push. Doing so will work wonders against the run (where SU struggled for much of last season), and free up the linebackers to be a bit more involved in pass coverage. Last year, linebackers had to be pulled in for run-stopping all the time, and opposing teams knew it — exploiting resulting holes in the defense with the passing game.
Which newcomers are going to see playing time?
Based on what’s been observed in practice, the two most likely would see to be New Mexico State transfer Jason Simmons and top 2021 recruit Duce Chestnut. The secondary was already a potential strength for SU this season, so having two new players be able to contribute heavily to what will be a very experienced — but young — group is a great sign of what’s to come.
It also pays future dividends in recruiting. That’s not a focus of this piece, but plugging in new guys at corner/safety/rover and having them put up big numbers right away becomes a better sales pitch for top players, especially when paired with the three guys (Ifeatu Melifonwu, Trill Williams, Andre Cisco) that just headed off to the NFL.
How will the staff coach with urgency without seeming panicked?
This may be something that evolves over the course of the season depending on opponents and W-L record. But the Orange coaches clearly have something to prove this year and need to inspire faith early, both among players and fans. The quickest way to put last season’s failures in the rear-view mirror is to come out looking aggressive and decisive, and not just a continuation of the things that clearly didn’t work in 2019 and 2020.
For what it’s worth, that seems likely to be the case on defense. Tony White’s group came out guns blazing last year vs. both North Carolina and Pitt, despite losses in both games (and a lack of much offseason to implement a new system). But on offense, there’s real urgency to show that last year’s Sterlin Gilbert attack was the exception, not the rule. There hasn’t been any actual “hot seat” talk emanating from SU. But if the Orange start slow, this fan base will be foaming at the mouth.
Babers hasn’t always been the quickest to adjust something that isn’t working as well. This year, he’ll need to be quicker to make switches and try something new to avoid losing the team and fan base. That’s not just about the QB position, though obviously that’s the one everyone will point to first and foremost. Play-calling is another place where the Orange need to be adaptable on the fly.
Certainly that’s not everything, but what other big questions do you have for this team before things get going next week?