Despite going 4-8 in 2016, Syracuse has something to look forward to in Year 2 under Dino Babers.
Last year, the Orange finished second in the ACC in passing and had many bright spots returning from an offense that at times was extremely explosive. The Orange returns every starter, but three this season.
“I think we’re right where we need to be,” Babers said. “We’re a little bit behind offensively, just again, from the moving from an option-based offense to the stuff that we want to do with the quarterbacks and the O-line and the skill people that we have in the upper class that were recruited for another style of play, but I thought all those young men are adapting well.
“They’re giving us their best, and I think that we may be a tad behind, but I think we’re where we need to be.”
One of the players Babers has to replace is wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo, who was arguably the best player on offense in 2016. Etta-Tawo had a total of 94 catches for 1,482 yards and 14 touchdowns. After averaging 123 yards a game.
The Orange also lost wide receiver Brisly Estime, who had a solid 518 yards and 3 touchdowns.
While losing arguably their best player, Syracuse is returning a staggering 19 starters overall, the most returning starters nationally. It starts with starting quarterback Eric Dungey, who had an excellent season throwing for 2,679 yards in 9 starts.
There were a few spots to fill in spring practice for the Orange. Receivers Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips return to the starting lineup. Devin C. Butler, Jamal Custis and Adly Anoicy all have been given opportunities to take the third spot. However, it will be tough to replace Etta-Tawo’s freakish athleticism and skill sets.
However, the biggest point of emphasis in the spring was the running game, and gaining control of the lines of scrimmage.
“I think there’s no doubt that we need to be better in the run game,” Babers said. “You just can’t go back and throw the ball every single snap and be consistently good. You’re only going to be occasionally great, and that’s not good enough.
“I think the physicality of the game, any time that you can run the football, that means you’re winning the physical battle in the game, and if you win the physical battle there’s a very good chance and most likely that you’re going to win the football game unless turnovers or something else comes into play. So we’re working hard on not only running the football but making sure we’re able to stop the run, and to me those are still the keys minus turnovers and special teams are the two main keys to winning football games.”
On the defensive side of the ball the Orange return everyone except starting cornerback Corey Winfield. Those returning include senior linebackers Parris Bennett and Zaire Franklin. Each had over 100 tackles. Free safety Davion Ellison had 90 tackles last season in only 9 games.
The Orange ranked 120th in scoring defense last season and 122nd in total defense, but they made strides in the spring. With three seniors returning at linebacker in Bennett, Franklin and Jonathan, the veteran group is the focal point of their defense.
To go along with the group, sophomore middle linebacker Andrew Armstrong impressed all spring, especially in the spring game.
The defensive line is set with a solid pass rush. Defensive end Jack Prichard has been a pleasant surprise for the team fighting for playing time in the veteran D-Line.
“I think with all the young men coming back, twice as much emphasis on that part of it, I thought they did a much better job of getting to the passer and having — when they had opportunities for one-on-ones, bringing them home for sacks and pressures on the quarterback,” Babers said.
The only true competition for a vacant spot is the second cornerback spot. Notre Dame transfer Devin Butler looks to be the favorite to start there.
“I thought we had a fantastic spring,” Babers said. “We stayed away from all major injuries. It was a spring of going back through and doing the little things over and over again, letting the young men get more comfortable in the second year of the offense, second year of the defense, and then of course we’re going to have a new special teams coordinator. So I thought that went extremely well, and I thought they’re ready for the next phase.”
—Photo Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports