Dino Babers enters his seventh season at Syracuse with high hopes there won't be a repeat of last year when the Orange were poised for a solid finish, then flopped.
“We think we have a really stable foundation right now," Babers said. "We think that we have the type of team now that can go deep into November and do some of the things that we think we needed to be doing in some of those other years.”
Last season was chock full of drama as the Orange (5-7, 2-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) switched starting quarterbacks early, giving dual threat Garrett Shrader the job in Game 4. Syracuse played four straight games decided by three points, losing three of them in a row, and closed the season with three straight losses, scoring just 34 points and allowing 113 to miss the postseason again.
The Orange fired offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Sterlin Gilbert and hired the architects of Virginia's potent offense — offensive coordinator Robert Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck — to jumpstart an offense that relied too much on the run. Shrader and tailback Sean Tucker gave the Orange a ground game that averaged 5.2 yards per carry and 213.5 yards per game, and the two combined to rush for 26 of the team's 39 touchdowns.
But the receiving corps had just seven touchdowns.
“We know we’re more than capable and competent, and we’ve got a lot of receivers that didn’t get a chance to show themselves,” said the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Shrader, who passed for just 1,445 yards and nine TDs with four interceptions. "We’re going to be explosive this year.”
The Orange's 3-3-5 defense is in year three and stocked with talent, including leading tacklers LBs Mikel Jones (110) and Stefon Thompson (79) along with DBs Garrett Williams and Darian Chestnut. Replacing linemen Josh Black, Kingsley Jonathan, McKinley Williams and Cody Roscoe is the top priority for a unit that ranked 19th in total defense in 2021 (330.3 yards per game).
Tucker rushed for a school-record 1,496 yards and more big things are expected. The school has already begun a campaign touting him for the Heisman Trophy.
“Sean Tucker is better. I’m not trying to pump him up. I’m saying that modestly — he’s better," Babers said. “To his credit, he’s stronger, he’s faster, he’s really learned the playbook. It’s going to be fun.”
Syracuse’s offensive struggles (No. 94 at 366.5 ypg in 2021) have coincided with injuries on the line and a lack of depth. Last season, the Orange used eight different line combinations. Junior LT Matthew Bergeron has started 28 straight games and is being counted on to lead a unit that includes Carlos Vettorello, Chris Bleich, Darius Tisdale, Dakota Davis, Kalan Ellis and Josh Ilaoa, all of whom have started.
“We haven’t had a stable offensive line since you know when. It’s frustrating for me,” Babers said.
Placekicker Andre Szmyt was set to move on after last season despite one more year of eligibility after hitting just 9 of 14 field goals. But the 2018 Lou Groza Award winner changed his mind two days after Babers hired Bob Ligashesky as the new special teams coordinator. Special teams duties were split among staff members last season.
WHAT HOT SEAT?
Babers has a 29-43 record at Syracuse and only one winning season — a 10-win campaign in 2018 that ended with a No. 15 national ranking. He signed a contract extension after that season and the pandemic then took a toll on the Orange, who crashed to a 10-loss season in 2020, prompting speculation about his future with the Orange.
He's got the boss's OK for now.
“Dino is not on the hot seat,” Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack said. “I’m really pleased with what we’ve done in the past six months. I like where we’re headed.”
Syracuse plays five of its first six games at home, but the schedule is daunting. Louisville is first on Sept. 3, and Purdue, Florida State, preseason No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 13 North Carolina State also visit, and there's an October road game against No. 4 Clemson to go with November road games against No. 17 Pitt, No. 22 Wake Forest and Boston College.
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