First and foremost, allow me to express my gratitude to the guys here at We Is ND for inviting me onto this forum and giving me permission to discuss upstate New York football. Given the state of the Syracuse program, I presume that most people would rather read a preview of the Sun Belt conference or discuss the upcoming WNBA playoffs, so I am thrilled to have this opportunity.
The 2008 season of Syracuse University football figures to be long and painful for everyone. Syracuse’s marketing team has labeled this year’s official theme as “Road to Perdition,” while early reports out of the athletic offices indicate that the team motto is “Let’s Just Get This Out of the Way.” The only bright spot in this season is that very few people will be forced to witness the impending debacle, as season ticket orders have plummeted this year.
The Orange (formerly, and hereinafter, “the Orangemen”) are led by head coach Greg Robinson, who holds the rare distinction of having failed miserably at every prior coaching stop. During his three years on the Hill, Robinson has led the Orangemen to a 7-28 record, including three wins over Thruway “rival” and perennial doormat Buffalo. It is believed that Robinson is the only coach who has an entire portion of his playbook containing punt plays on second and third down.
Notwithstanding this track record of futility, Robinson has managed to retain his job by forming a close personal alliance with Athletic Director and “wunderkind” Daryl Gross opted to retain Robinson for this upcoming season. Gross jettisoned long-time coach Paul Pasqualoni immediately after taking over as AD in 2005 and replaced him with Robinson. Most Syracuse denizens, of course, are unsurprised by Gross’s failures, inasmuch as his only prior athletic administration experience consisted of acting as personal secretary/coffee gatherer to USC AD Mike Garrett during the 2002 search process in which Garrett struck out on his first seven coaching targets before hiring Pete Carroll. To be fair, however, Gross has delivered upon his promise to rescue the football program from the throes of mediocrity, as he and Robinson have guided the team on a fast track from average to terrible.
The numbers don’t lie. In 2007, Syracuse’s offense rivaled Notre Dame’s offense in terms of ineptitude. The Orangemen averaged 16.4 points per game, thereby tying the Irish for 116th place out of 120 Division 1-A teams and averaged a paltry 318.9 yards per game (115th).
A primary reason for Syracuse’s recent malaise has been uninspired quarterback play. During the MacPherson and Pasqualoni eras, the team thrived under such prominent signal callers as Don McPherson, Marvin Graves, Donovan McNabb and the incomparable Troy Nunes. This year’s quarterback/punching bag, Andrew Robinson, has provided Syracuse fans with reason for hope during his first two years under center. Robinson, however, has been plagued by poor offensive line play and unimaginative play calling, thereby stunting his development. In light of coach Robinson’s woeful offensive line recruiting over the past three years and the current paucity of skilled receivers, expect quarterback Robinson to become intimately familiar with the ice tub once again.
The backup quarterback is Cameron Dantley, a former walk-on and the son of former Irish basketball great Adrian Dantley. Last year, the younger Dantley played admirably in limited action, including a solid performance against South Florida. In accordance with the established stereotype, Dantley is more mobile than Robinson, which should serve him well in this offense. Dantley should see some action again in 2008, as Robinson will certainly take his share of ferocious hits.
Although this year’s crop of running backs will not remind anyone of Jim Brown or Ernie Davis, the Orangemen expect one or more rushers to emerge in 2008. Junior Delone Carter and senior Curtis Brinkley have both shown signs of explosiveness in prior years, but both must show that they are fully healed from injury. Carter missed all of 2007 with a hip injury, while Brinkley missed the final few games of 2007 with a broken leg. In their place, then-freshman Doug Hogue performed capably, albeit unspectacularly.
The wildcard at the running back position is Averin Collier, who is Robinson’s most prized recruit and the program’s biggest local signing since Damien Rhodes decided to play for his hometown school in 2002. Collier graduated early from Churchville-Chili High School in suburban Rochester and he participated in spring practice, thus raising expectations that he will be able to contribute instantly. Though the young Collier obviously appears to possess the physical tools and mental toughness to succeed for the Orangemen, fans and alumni alike should temper their enthusiasm, as the transition from Monroe County high school football to the Big East Conference is akin to rising in class from a $5,000 claiming race at Finger Lakes Race Track to the Kentucky Derby.
Prior to the end of last season, wide receiver seemed to be a bona fide position of strength for the Orangemen, as Mike Williams (60- 837, 10 TD) and Taj Smith (44-822, 5 TD) both figured to build on their impressive 2007 campaigns. Unfortunately, Williams was suspended from school in the spring for academic reasons and Smith, apparently acting on the guidance of the same people who advised Matt Walsh to leave the University of Florida early, skipped his senior season at the Dome so he could go unselected in the NFL draft. Consequently, first-year offensive coordinator Mitch Browning is hoping that he can coax some production out of an inexperienced and unheralded crop of receivers which includes Donte Davis, Lavar Lobdell and Dan Sheeran, as well as the tight end group of Mike Owen and Ben Maljovec, both of whom are converted linebackers. In other words, expect to see plenty of 8 and even 9 man fronts.
In football parlance, offensive linemen are often referred to “the big uglies.” This is half true at Syracuse, as the quality of play is undeniably ugly, but the linemen are somewhat undersized. In order for the offense to have any measure of success in 2008, the line must improve dramatically over last year. The Orangemen return guard Ryan Durand and tackle Corey Chavers, both of whom have proven to be tough, effective players, but there are few other linemen with experience. Moreover, using Phil Steele’s vernacular, the line is not exactly teeming with “HTs” or “VHTs” who can be expected to contribute immediately. Unless new coordinator Browning, an offensive line coach by trade, can swiftly whip this group into shape, the Orangemen can expect to find themselves at the bottom of the offensive statistical rankings again.
Perhaps feeling hard pressed to keep up with the offense, Syracuse’s 2007 defense also reached dizzying lows last year. The defense surrendered a staggering 468.8 yards per game (111th nationally) and 34.8 points per game (104th nationally). As with the offense, the defense features a new coordinator, Derrick Jackson, who will be charged with the proverbial task of making chicken salad out of chicken excrement. Head coach Robinson, reportedly giddy at the thought of molding this outfit of one and two star recruits into a well-oiled machine, will assume the role of co-coordinator.
Dwight Freeney, where have you gone? In 2007, the defense posted a meager 9 sacks, thus placing tremendous pressure on its already undermanned secondary. Notwithstanding this performance, the defensive line does feature a potential rising star in junior defensive tackle Arthur Jones, a Second Team All-Big East selection last year. As for the rest of the line, substantial improvement will be required from the likes of sophomore defensive tackle Bud Tribbey, sixth-year senior Vincenzo Giruzzi, a former linebacker, and freshman Lamar Middleton. As with Mike Williams, one of the few bright spots, Brandon Gilbeaux, neglected to take care of his responsibilities in the classroom and, thus, he will ride the pine in 2008.
At linebacker, the Orangemen can depend upon senior Jake Flaherty, who can be described as a poor-man’s Paul Posluszny, to provide steady play and solid leadership. Other than Flaherty, however, the rest of the linebacking core is green. Sophomore Parker Canty will likely start at strongside linebacker and freshman Chad Battles will battle (repetitive verb usage intended) Mike Mele for the other starting gig beside Flaherty. This group is light on size, talent and experience, but presumably terrific otherwise.
Last (and decidedly least), the secondary should be the weak link of an already miserable defense. Mike Holmes, who struggled as a true freshman, returns at cornerback, where he will be joined by either Da’Mon Merkenson or sophomore Nico Scott. At safety, Bruce Williams and A.J. Brown, both of whom are inexperienced are expected to start. This group, having been burned so badly last year, is rightfully expected to be gun shy. It is imperative that the defensive coaches somehow empower these guys with some measure of confidence in fall camp (and not just false braggadocio like the kind exhibited by Syracuse alumnus Anthony Smith last year in the NFL) or it will be more of the same in 2008.
If there’s one thing a bad football team needs, it’s a strong punting game. In light of this axiom, the Orangemen will be heavily dependent on punter Rob Long, particularly since he will be punting on second and third down, as noted above. Long thrived last year as a freshman, averaging 41.9 yards per punt while logging a heavy workload of 75 punts. Likewise, in anticipation of likely red zone struggles, kicker Patrick Shadle will be a vital cog in the offensive attack. Syracuse has a rich history of placekickers, such as Gary Anderson and Olindo Mare, but their recent kickers have been unable to carry on this legacy, as evidenced by their embarrassing miscues (see, e.g., Temple game, 2002) and dependence on outright chicanery (google “collin barber syracuse lollipop”). Coach Robinson and crew are hoping that Shadle can build on his strong 2007 campaign (10-14 FGs) and restore the proud kicking tradition to Syracuse. More importantly, considering Syracuse’s myriad other shortcomings, the team’s ability to make a run at .500 will likely hinge upon whether Long and Shadle can challenge for the Ray Guy and Lou “The Toe” Groza awards, respectively. Finally, in the return game, the Orangemen feature Caucasian sensation Max Suter, who has been described as a “possession kick returner,” notwithstanding his 25.5 yards/return last year. Suter should get plenty of opportunities, as opposing teams will certainly score plenty of touchdowns against the Orangemen in 2008.
To his credit, Athletic Director Gross has constructed another respectable non-conference schedule. The Orangemen will open the season against Northwestern in Evanston and they will host longtime rival Penn State at the Dome in September. In addition, Syracuse will also visit South Bend in November. In conference play, the Orangemen host Pittsburgh, Louisville and Connecticut, while traveling to West Virginia, South Florida, Rutgers and Cincinnati. Although this slate may have been navigable for most Syracuse teams throughout the school’s history, this year’s talent-starved squad will likely be overwhelmed. Accordingly, there is little hope that 2008 team will exceed last year’s 2-10 record, especially as the calls for Greg Robinson’s job become louder and the crowds at the Dome become sparser.