Syracuse Kicks Off Spring Football Practice

The Orange finished 2014 with a 3-9 overall record (1-7 ACC) and tied for last place in the ACC Atlantic Division with Wake Forest. Head coach Scott Shafer enters his third season at the helm in Syracuse with many wondering what to expect. Will it be a repeat of the underwhelming three-win campaign or a return to respectability like his seven-win debut that included a win in the Texas Bowl? The answer will become clearer as spring football practice begins to sort out personnel at key spots.

Terrel Hunt returns for his senior season at quarterback after missing seven games in 2014 following a fractured fibula suffered in a loss to Louisville. Hunt is an athletic playmaker who sometimes struggles with his passing. His career completion percentage is just under 60% but his 11 touchdowns to 12 interceptions illuminate some of the shortcomings in his ability to recognize coverages and make sight adjustments. His best plays are made with his feet as evidenced by 792 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground during his time at Syracuse.

That mobile threat at quarterback is valued by offensive coordinator Tim Lester who was promoted to replace George McDonald last season. His playbook is still something of a mystery as this is the first offseason he’s had to install everything, but it will include multiple looks that are easily adaptable to the players at his disposal.

Questions remain regarding who will emerge as the featured running back with the departure of leading rusher Prince Tyson-Gulley. Sophomore Ervin Philips has transitioned to an h-back role so the battle likely boils down to seniors Devante McFarlane and George Morris II, at least for now. True freshman and jewel of the 2015 recruiting class Dontae Strickland won’t be on campus until this summer, but his speed and athleticism should make him a factor immediately. The coaches are understandably very excited about the versatility he brings to the table.

The offensive line is working through changes with players like Rob Trudo getting work at center and former tight end Kendall Moore trying his hand at several spots along the line. Moore is undersized at this point with Shafer saying he needs to gain a pound a week to be ready for summer camp as a lineman.

Steve Ishmael (415 yards, 3 touchdowns) is the leading receiver coming back and Ashton Broyld is finally back healthy. Alvin Cornelius has been a standout in early practice with some nice catches as well. True freshman Trey Dunkleberger has already made some impressive plays at tight end and physically he should be ready to contribute early.

Defense is where Shafer earned his stripes coming up and despite some struggles, the Orange have put together some strong units in recent years. When he was hired as defensive coordinator he made a statement that says a lot about his philosophy on that side of the ball.

“Scheme is overrated, I’ve always believed that. What’s not overrated is getting your kids to play with great effort, great attitude and great enthusiasm. Those are things we can control on a daily basis, and that will be my primary goal.”

In 2014-15, Syracuse ranked 26th in total defense and 37th in scoring defense. This season will present a big challenge however as ‘Cuse looks to replace eight starters on that side of the ball. That means the team will have to rely on younger, less experienced players making the spring session all the more important.

The secondary figures to be the spot to watch with interesting position battles to keep an eye on this spring. Safety is a key area of focus with the top three contributors from last season gone. Antwan Cordy is working at both safety and corner and has made some plays sin the early going. Rodney Williams has earned some praise as well and Chauncey Scissum has proven to be smart with his defensive calls.

Julian Whigam (28 tackles, one interception) is back at corner and he may be asked to do quite a lot. The defense will need leaders and he’s one of the players coaches have mentioned as a guy who could step up in that area. He’s been through quite a lot during his time in Syracuse including recovering from a serious lung contusion suffered in 2013 at Florida State.

Ron Thompson returns along the line after a solid campaign last season that saw him rack up 32 total tackles including seven for loss and three sacks. He’ll be called upon to anchor a line that may be forced to rely heavily on players not yet on campus.

The ACC has become known in recent years for its unpredictability and that means there’s ample opportunity for a team like Syracuse to turn a bad season around the next year. When you factor in the number of close losses last season and the fresh talent coming in at several positions, it’s not at all unreasonable to think the Orange can find a few more wins on the schedule this year, especially with a favorable home slate in September.

With so little in the way of returning experience however, sorting out the lineup that sees the field in the fall will certainly extend deep into summer workouts. The key for spring is to gain experience for the players trying their hands at new positions and identify kids ready to step up and lead a team trying to get back to bowl contention.

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