After his Syracuse Orange won 28-13 over the Pitt Panthers at Yankee Stadium, Dino Babers was asked if he thought Dan Villari would take as many snaps as he did at quarterback.
“Yes,” was the simple and powerful one word answer from the Syracuse head coach.
In a way, Orange fans probably shouldn’t have been surprised. With the status of Syracuse’s top two quarterback options up in the air prior to game time, many fans probably forgot that Villari originally transferred from Michigan to Syracuse as a quarterback. So instead of turning to Braden Davis or Luke MacPhail, the Orange coaching staff made a drastic system change with the season on the line.
That change was a physical run game that harkened back to the game that Syracuse and Pitt were paying tribute to 100 years ago. With almost no ability to have an effective forward passing game, Villari was one of three Syracuse players to take snaps and confuse the Panthers defense with differing run concepts. All three of those Orange players eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark, the first time for Syracuse since 1997.
And change is not new to Villari. After Del Rio-Wilson joined the Orange in the same offseason that Villari did, it was pretty clear to see that the Michigan transfer would be pushed down the quarterback depth chart. Babers and the coaching staff thought that Villari could potentially make the switch to tight end.
However, it would take quite a while to see if the position switch worked. Villari joined the tight end room late in the 2022 season and missed the entire subsequent offseason due to injury. He didn’t return to practice until September, and it took a bit of time for Villari to reestablish himself into the Orange offense.
Patience eventually paid off as Villari started getting less blocking duties and more receiving opportunities. He showed flashes of what he would eventually unleash against Pitt, which was part of a physical run game. Villari fit right into that system as a downhill runner who didn’t wait for the best hole to show up. He pounded the ball into any open space and eventually dragged defenders along with him. Syracuse luckily had a perfect weapon in its pocket in order to make the scheme change work.
“I had no doubt,” said Villari. “That’s what I do. I’m used to running the ball in wildcat like that. So I was confident, and I tried my best to get everyone else on board.”
Getting everyone to buy in is another analogy that can be used to describe Villari’s Syracuse career. Save for Taysom Hill, there aren’t many quarterbacks who have succeeded from switching to tight end. Villari’s injury pushed his timetable back, meaning he had to prove to the coaching staff and his teammates in live game action that the decision was worth it.
“This has been a slow growth,” said Babers. “It’s not surprising us. It’s just that we had to wait until we saw it on the field because you just can’t make that move on a football team unless the other family members see what we always thought we had.”
Dan Villari's 154 yards on the ground is a new program record for rushing yards by a tight end.— Syracuse Football (@CuseFootball) November 12, 2023
...and none of that sentence is a typo. Football. Player. pic.twitter.com/dZFx40e1U5
Not many people would’ve expected that Villari’s 154 rushing yards would lead the team against Pitt. But that’s a testament to Villari’s style. In the limited action we saw from him, he was never the flashiest player. But he fought hard for every yard when given the opportunity. As a reminder, the beginning of the season was essentially Villari’s preseason as he was injured.
“I feel like I’m reaching my stride now,” said Villari. “I’m real excited to have a full offseason after this season and really improve.”
And now Syracuse has a new weapon in its arsenal to use in its quest for back-to-back bowl games. Babers always preaches faith and belief without evidence. This is one of the times where his faith and belief was rewarded, as there was almost zero expectation that a former quarterback could dominate on the ground like Villari did. And as Villari continues to grow in game sharpness, perhaps the sky is the limit.
“I still believe - I’m saying that humbly - that he’s going to be an NFL tight end,” said Babers.