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Syracuse Orange 2017 Spring Football Preview

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In a way, the loss to Pittsburgh on Nov. 26 perfectly summed up Dino Babers' first season as the Syracuse head coach. When the Orange fell to the Panthers, 76-61, to conclude a 4-8 year, it contained some of 2016's ups and downs. Yes, like many of the Orange games, the offense made impressive strides, as 61 points is nothing to be ashamed about. But, also like a lot of Syracuse games in Babers' first season, the defense was sorely lacking and quite honestly something to be ashamed about.

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As Babers gets ready for his second spring practice in Central New York, he'd like to continue that offensive ascension while fixing those problems along the defensive side of the ball. There is enough experience to possibly make some headway on both fronts, and Babers has a history of turning programs around quickly.

5 Storylines to Watch During Syracuse's Spring Practice

1. Quarterback depth
The Orange have a clear starter at quarterback in junior Eric Dungey, so there is no controversy as they enter camp. However, Dungey has a history of injury problems, as missing the last three games of 2016.

Senior Zack Mahoney is a solid option if Dungey is not available, while redshirt freshman Rex Culpepper might not be an immediate answer but could be down the line. True freshman Tommy DeVito arrives in the summer to throw his hat in the ring, but the goal now is to build depth behind Dungey.

2. Protecting the pocket
Experience on the offensive line will not be a problem. The Orange have pieces like Cody Conway, a junior who is the returning starter at left tackle, and fellow classmate Aaron Roberts at left guard.

The issue is how much better the unit can perform. The Orange were 119th in the nation in sacks allowed per game. Especially given Dungey's injury concerns, the Orange need to improve up front.

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3. Finding Etta-Tawo's replacement
The surprise of last season was the emergence of wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo, the graduate transfer from Maryland who caught 94 passes for 1,482 yards and 14 touchdowns. Now that he's gone, the question becomes who replaces that production?

Players like Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips are known quantities who will be counted on to make plays. Someone like junior Jamal Custis, who missed last season with an injury, would be one candidate to watch as a breakout performer.

4. Building defensive line depth
At the moment, the Orange are simply short on bodies on the defensive line. Heading into the spring, there are only three scholarship defensive ends practicing with the team.

Things are not great at defensive tackle, either, as junior Steven Clark is dealing with blood clots. This is a team that was not great up front on defense to begin with last year, so building depth along this unit is critical.

5. Cordy's return
After missing most of last season with a broken forearm, safety Antwan Cordy is back this spring. He is a key member of the back seven and can play a vital role in the defense's improvement.

Just one player is not going to be able to turn around a defense that gave up 76 points in its last game, but Cordy is the best playmaker in the secondary and the junior should be a leader that unit can count on.

Pre-Spring Outlook for Syracuse in the ACC

The rebuild process in Syracuse still has a long way to go. Teams like Clemson, Florida State and Louisville are way ahead of where the Orange are, as Syracuse still needs to shore things up on the defensive end to get to the lead pack in the Atlantic Division. That said, Syracuse did make some strides last season with wins over teams that went bowling like Virginia Tech and Boston College. If the Orange can beat teams like Boston College, Wake Forest and even NC State in the division, bowl eligibility is possible.

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— 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.