Dino Babers was ready for his program to make a jump last year.
After going 10–3 for Syracuse’s best finish in 17 years, the Orange entered 2019 nationally ranked and equipped with dreams of chasing a spot in the College Football Playoff. Then SU crumpled at Maryland in Week 2, saw Tommy DeVito become the most-sacked quarterback in the nation and fired its defensive coordinator after nine games en route to a 5–7 finish.
So Babers sought change this offseason, hiring former Eastern Illinois understudy Sterlin Gilbert as offensive coordinator and bringing in defensive coordinator Tony White to run the 3-3-5 that he learned at Arizona State.
But the coronavirus pandemic ended spring practice after only three sessions, leaving Syracuse in limbo. The Orange want to morph and compete at the top of the ACC Atlantic Division in 2020. Will the team even have time to implement its alterations?
Previewing Syracuse's Offense for 2020
DeVito returns for his redshirt junior season as one of only two Power 5 signal-callers in the last decade to complete 63 percent of his passes, produce 20-plus touchdowns, record eight or fewer turnovers and be sacked at least 35 times.
To put it bluntly: He never had a chance to prove his readiness behind an offensive line that lost one starter to a head injury in Week One and saw another leave the program midseason.
Three starters up front are back this season, and the growth of the first-year starters from 2019 will be critical in determining whether Babers and Gilbert can get their up-tempo offense back in gear. Florida guard transfer Chris Bleich could provide further relief if the NCAA approves his waiver for immediate eligibility.
DeVito is flanked by deep running back and tight end groups. Both positions have reliable veterans like Abdul Adams, Aaron Hackett and Chris Elmore as well as second-year big-play threats in Jawhar Jordan and Luke Benson. At wide receiver, though, SU must replace its top producer in Trishton Jackson, who left early for the NFL Draft, as well as slot receiver Sean Riley.
Junior wideout Taj Harris is the best bet for a breakout year if he and DeVito can nail down timing and option routes. Senior receiver Nykeim Johnson also brings experience, as well as top-end speed and reliable hands. Who else joins them in the starting lineup will be one of the primary position battles to watch during preseason camp.
Previewing Syracuse's Defense for 2020
With seven starters gone and a new scheme yet to be installed, 2020 projects as a transitional year on this side of the ball.
The coaching staff’s hope is that a base version of this complex and nuanced system will allow SU’s best athletes to confuse opposing quarterbacks. A full spring would have allowed players to settle into positions and begin to learn their new terminology and techniques. Instead, SU never got into full pads and still had coaches reminding players of their keys and checks before each snap.
When official team activities resume, White will need to lean hard on a group of assistants who have never coached the 3-3-5 as well as veteran leadership. The latter starts in the secondary where junior safety Andre Cisco returns as the FBS active leader in interceptions (12). Two other juniors — corner/nickel Trill Williams and corner Ifeatu Melifonwu — have all the tools to contend for All-ACC standing.
In the box, there are more pressing questions. SU graduated its starting linebackers for the third straight season, leaving sophomore Mikel Jones as the only returner with significant base formation experience. Will White call on bigger ’backers like Tyrell Richards and Geoff Cantin-Arku — one inside linebacker must be ready to put his hand down and create an event front — or will a smaller, faster player like Jones or Lee Kpogba crack the starting lineup? The former pairing opened the spring with the first team.
Up front, Syracuse loses three starters, including top edge rushers Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman. Redshirt senior McKinley Williams may be the team’s only capable nose tackle, and he missed most of 2019 due to a foot injury, though Josh Black and Kingsley Jonathan are ideal physical fits for ends in the system.
Related: ACC Football Predictions for 2020
Previewing Syracuse's Specialists for 2020
Syracuse loses one of the nation’s best punters in Sterling Hofrichter but returns one of the nation’s best placekickers in Andre Szmyt. Szmyt is 47-for-54 on field goals over two seasons, earning the Lou Groza Award as a redshirt freshman in 2019. The Orange signed a scholarship punter in James Williams, who is viewed as the likely starter for the fall.
SU must also determine a new primary return man with Riley gone. Jordan, who may be the fastest player on the roster, is a strong candidate, along with Johnson and Trill Williams.
Syracuse has the tools to rebound in 2020, but a thin margin for error has been made thinner by the coronavirus pandemic. A team that needs time to learn and grow is facing an uncertain future.
If and when the season begins, a return to postseason play for the Orange will hinge on improved offensive line play as well as opportunistic tendencies from a havoc-oriented defense.
National Ranking: 67
(Top photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletics)