SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Dino Babers begins his sixth season at Syracuse with doubters all around as he strives to resurrect the success the Orange had three years ago.
That's a tall task for a team that finished 1-10 overall and 1-9 in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season and is picked to come in last in the Atlantic Division, with the starting quarterback not yet settled. With several veterans back on both sides of the ball, Babers remains hopeful he'll be able to give one of those locker room speeches he's become known for after big upsets.
“I think the biggest thing is the health (of the team),” Babers said. “The seasons that we've had after our 10-3 year has come down to certain guys not being healthy, and we don't have as many of those guys as other people do."
Righting what went wrong in 2020 when COVID-19 kept the newly refurbished Carrier Dome empty is foremost on the minds of the players, especially those in their final year of eligibility who don't want to leave that sort of legacy.
“I can’t go out on a losing season. Just 1-10, those numbers are horrific," redshirt senior defensive end Josh Black said. "You look at that on paper, it’s like, ‘Oh, man!’ Just something didn’t feel right, didn’t sit right with me. I know personally a lot of the guys felt the same way, too. Felt like last year was not a representative of who we are as a football team. It’s part of my job to make sure we get on the right track before I head up out of here.”
Babers said he wants a clear winner at quarterback, so that means it will be determined in preseason camp.
Two-year starter Tommy DeVito, a pocket passer, has shown that if he gets time to throw, his strong right arm can wreak some havoc. But before he was hurt last October and lost for the season, DeVito was sacked 20 times in four games. No surprise that Syracuse finished near the bottom in the country in third-down conversions (40 of 153, 123rd of 127 teams).
There's some serious competition this year — dual-threat Garrett Shrader, a transfer from Mississippi State. The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder was one of three FBS freshmen QBs in 2019 to put up 1,000 yards passing and 500 yards rushing.
“I'm just taking it day by day and learning, just being the best man I can be,” Shrader said. “We'll see where the chips fall.”
Keeping the starters healthy and developing some depth on both sides of the ball is paramount. By the end of last October, the Orange were missing more than a dozen starters or key contributors who were either out for the season due to injury or opted out because of the coronavirus. The offensive line was hit so hard — Syracuse suffered 38 sacks, more than all but two teams in the country — that fullback Chris Elmore had to play up front. In preseason camp, redshirt junior OG Dakota Davis, who was hurt the majority of last season, has missed time with a foot injury.
“I think the main difference is going to be that those guys are healthy, and we’re not going to be having a rotation of a bunch of young guys in there with some older guys," Babers said. "Hopefully, we’ve got the health that we need to have the season that we want.”
The Orange lost three outstanding defensive backs — Andre Cisco, Ifeatu Melifonwu, and Trill Williams are in NFL camps — but because their departures came before last season ended, newcomers who stepped into the void saw plenty of action. They included DBs Garrett Williams and Ja'Had Carter, 1-2 in solo tackles as freshmen and key parts of a unit that posted 24 turnovers.
RUN, BABY, RUN
Tailback Sean Tucker returns after a solid freshman year (626 yards, 4.6 per carry) in spite of the offensive line woes and will be joined again by Cooper Lutz (43 rushes, 5.7-yard average). Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard also are back after opting out of last season. Syracuse hasn't had a 1,000-yard runner since Jerome Smith in 2012.
The Orange have a favorable conference slate that includes just one of the three ACC teams ranked in the AP's preseason Top 25 — No. 3 Clemson — and the mid-October game is in the Carrier Dome. Syracuse opens at Ohio on Sept. 4, then three straight home games — against Rutgers, Albany and Liberty — give the chance for a positive start to the season.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25