Ever since the disastrous four-year reign of Greg Robinson, Syracuse has struggled with fits and starts to push its program into the upper echelon of the Big East and now the Atlantic Coast Conference.
There have been bright spots, as Doug Marrone posted two 8-5 seasons, the second coming in 2012 with a Big East co-championship and Pinstripe Bowl win. His replacement, Scott Shafer, followed that with a 7-6 year that culminated in a Texas Bowl victory.
But after just seven wins – and only three in ACC play – over the last two years, Shafer is out and Dino Babers is in. Babers brings an impressive resume of turning programs into winners in a short time frame plus an up-tempo offensive approach he learned as an assistant under Baylor’s Art Briles.
It worked for Babers both at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green, where he led the Falcons to a Mid-American Conference championship last year. Despite one of the most experienced rosters in the nation, Babers knows the rebuilding job at Syracuse will require patience at a program that won just four games in 2015 and faces another daunting schedule.
5 Storylines to Watch in Syracuse Spring Practice
1. Pace of Play
Last year, one team – Army – ran fewer offensive plays than the Orange. Conversely, zero teams ran more offensive plays than Babers’ Falcons at Bowling Green. More than anything, that one tangible element of a faster pace on offense is something Babers can bring right away to his new program.
In Babers’ introductory press conference, he promised the no-huddle attack would be a staple of how the Orange operated under his watch. In the spring, speeding things up offensively will be an adjustment, but one the team will have to welcome with open arms in order to get on the same page with its coach.
2. Building Quarterback Depth
Another issue Babers has addressed early on is quarterback depth, which could rear its ugly head again this fall.
As a true freshman in 2015, Eric Dungey showed he has the chops to make a difference both as a passer and runner. However, it is in the latter department that he got into a bit of trouble, as he’s had at least one concussion and needs to be a bit more careful when he takes off.
Junior Zach Mahoney is the likely backup, while incoming freshman Rex Culpepper is an early enrollee who can throw his hat into the ring. Babers will look to have both in a position to fill in if needed.
3. Playmaker Shuffle
The running game should be solid again with the return of Jordan Fredericks, but if the Orange are going to speed things up and improve on their passing game, which ranked 116th in the country compared to Bowling Green’s fifth, Babers needs to find athletes on the outside and in the slot who can make plays in space.
Junior Steve Ishmael was the team’s leading receiver with 39 catches for 570 yards last season, and he’s no doubt going to be counted on as an outside threat. But players like Ervin Phillips and Brisly Estime won’t be utilized the same way in this offense. Estime, in particular, is one of the ACC’s top punt returners, but caught just 17 passes. That needs to change.
Early enrollee Moe Neal was the team’s top-rated recruit out of the 2016 class and could provide immediate assistance in the slot or out of the backfield.
4. Defensive Line Depth
There are plenty of concerns on defense, but the linebacker position seems to be in good hands, especially with the return of Zaire Franklin in the middle.
The line in front of him, though, has question marks. The tackle positions should be relatively stable, as Chris Slayton and Kayton Samuels held their own last year as redshirt freshmen.
However, depth needs to be built on the ends, as Ron Thompson, Donnie Simmons, Luke Arciniega and their 12 sacks from last year are gone. Defensive line coach Vince Reynolds needs to get his new charges up to speed quickly.
5. Secondary Issues
On the bright side, Syracuse returns virtually everyone of note from its defensive backfield. On the not so sunny side, that secondary was torched last season by virtually every quarterback it faced. In a division with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville, that’s not a recipe for success.
There is some room for optimism. Strong safety Antwan Cordy has the potential for a big year and corners Cordell Hudson and Juwan Dowels showed promise toward the end of last season.
But in new defensive coordinator Brian White’s Tampa-2 scheme, there has to be a clear step forward this year or opposing quarterbacks will continue to have a field day.
Pre-Spring Syracuse Outlook in the ACC
Right now, the ACC’s Atlantic Division has a clear top two in Clemson in Florida State, both of whom will be in the College Football Playoff discussion. Louisville returns 18 starters to be entrenched in that third spot, while NC State likely has enough to withstand the loss of Jacoby Brissett and finish fourth.
That’s where things get murky. Boston College, Syracuse and Wake Forest all return experienced rosters, but Syracuse faces both of those teams on the road and also has tough crossover games against Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. In other words, don’t expect miracles right away for the Orange, despite Babers’ pedigree.
-- Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.