Spring Update: Syracuse

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In the first game of Notre Dame’s ACC scheduling pact, the Irish will face Syracuse, a somewhat familiar opponent in recent years. The Irish and the Orange have only faced off six times in the programs’ histories, but three of those games took place in the aughts (or whatever we’re calling the 2000-09), with Syracuse winning two of three.

Much has changed in the past decade for the Syracuse football program. After becoming one of the premier teams in the Big East behind Paul Pasqualoni and the offensive firepower of Donovan McNabb, things have trended downward in the Carrier Dome. The hiring of Greg Robinson was a disaster, winning just three conference games in his four seasons. And just as Doug Marrone got the Orange on track, he left to run the Buffalo Bills after an 8-5 season in 2012.

Syracuse decided to hire from within when they replaced Marrone, promoting defensive coordinator Scott Shafer. And with a 7-6 season under his belt that ended with a promising win over Minnesota in the Texas Bowl, things look to be on the upswing.

Giving us an update on Notre Dame’s September opponent in Syracuse football blogger John Cassillo, from the wonderfully named website Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician. He was nice enough to spend some time talking about the state of the Orangemen (and also nice enough not to bring up the 2008 game).

 

Scott Shafer finished his first season at Syracuse with one more win than loss, thanks to a bowl victory over Minnesota. How was the decision to replace Doug Marrone with Shafer viewed by Syracuse fans? Has that opinion changed after one season?

The initial reaction for a lot of fans was “betrayal.” Considering Doug was one of our own, we kind of expected him to stick around for awhile (or at least beyond two winning seasons in four years). This is a condition created by the very long tenure of fellow SU alum Jim Boeheim, who as you all know, has coached our basketball team since 1976 (we’re aware this is our own issue to deal with). We liked Shafer at first because he allowed for staff continuity (Marrone did take most of our old staff with him to the NFL) and helped keep enough recruits in the fold — while also grabbing plenty of new ones — to keep our 2013 class intact. After one year with Shafer, though, I think we all sort of love the guy now. He’s incredibly personable, loves our tradition, our campus, the city of Syracuse and the kids he recruits. He treats us like family, and in return, we’ve done the same.

 

It sure looks like Terrel Hunt has taken control of the quarterback job. Is he the answer for the Orange offense? What’s the ceiling on Hunt’s talent? Is he the engine for the Syracuse offense?

Hunt, like most quarterbacks, is going to steer the ship for this offense, so yeah, we’re rising and falling based on his ability to step up. Last season saw both extremes of his talent, but with a very strong finish — big numbers while winning games against both Boston College and Minnesota — I believe he’s turned a corner and is the answer for us. His ceiling depends just as much on him as his supporting cast. If the O-line holds up and our other offensive playmakers take some steps forward, it should allow him to make plays at will, both on the ground and through the air. I’m not delusional enough to think he’s a Heisman candidate before his career’s up, but don’t be surprised to hear he’s one of the top senior QBs in the country when it’s all said and done.

 

The rest of the offense looks poised to take a leap forward. Jerome Smith needs to be replaced at running back, but there’s returning depth along the offensive line and at wide receiver. The scoring offense barely ranked 99th in the country. Are brighter days ahead?

Last year’s offense was… rough. But yeah, I think we’re going to see some better results this season. Hunt has a year under his belt, we return four of five offensive linemen and the only notable skill position players we’re without this year are Beckett Wales and Jerome Smith, who both graduated. Couple all that with offensive coordinator George McDonald having a full year of play-calling behind him too, and things could come together pretty nicely in 2014. The coaching staff has promised that the offense will pick up the pace this year, now we just have to hope that means picking up the rate of red zone execution as well. If Hunt gets a solid handle on throwing the deep ball (and you saw it improve by the end of last season), this offense could be a bit dangerous.

 

Defensively, there seems to be a lot of talent returning, though finding a replacement for Marquis Spruill will be vital. How will Chuck Bullough’s defense be?

Spruill was incredibly important, don’t get me wrong. But the most vital piece of our defense was defensive tackle Jay Bromley, who’s now a member of the New York Giants. So if anything, we’re looking to fill the void on the defensive line and figure out a way to generate the same type of pressure without him. As far as replacing Spruill, linebacker has become somewhat of a strength for this defense — a point only hammered home by Bullough’s own experience at the position. Dyshawn Davis and Cam Lynch were starters last year and bring back a ton of experience at the two outside linebacker spots. They should also help out whoever wins the middle linebacker role, as they’ll likely have a bit of a learning curve to start the year. That position is likely going to either Luke Arciniega (who’s been injured all spring) or Marqez Hodge, but honestly, they could end up splitting time as well to keep them both fresh. The defense, overall, will once again rise and fall with its front-seven, though expect some addition by subtraction with some new faces in the secondary (plus an improved Durell Eskridge).

 

Is there an offensive playmaker that Irish fans should look out for? How about on the defensive side of the ball?

On offense, Brisley Estime really came on at the H-Back spot late last year, and the speedy sophomore will likely do so again this season — expect this time, for a full year. Between him and Ashton Broyld, it should be quite a challenge stopping our incessant screen passes — which we’re still going to call close to 50 percent of the time. On defense, I mentioned Eskridge, but it’s worth expanding on him a bit. He’s a ball hawk at safety, who hits hard, tackles harder and might have the most pro potential of any starter on that unit. He was injured for the last couple games of 2013, but should be back at full speed this season and will be an impact player.

 

What’s the best case / worst case scenario for the Orange’s record in 2014?

Whether best- or worst-case, I actually think Syracuse’s game against Notre Dame should be telling for the rest of the season. Win, and the sky’s the limit (and by “sky” I mean, 9-3). Lose a close game, and we’re still on track for 7-5 or so. Get blown out, and suddenly, 6-6 or worse could be on the table. SU’s had one of the toughest schedules in the country for years now, and this season’s is really no different. I’ve already chalked up FSU and Clemson as losses in any scenario, with Notre Dame and Duke very likely defeats. But the rest? I’m not really worried the Orange are out-manned against any other opponent. So yeah, best-case is probably eight or nine regular season wins. And worst-case would be a five-win campaign that was derailed by injuries. Considering I was on campus during the Greg Robinson era, the fact that I can say five wins are a worst-case scenario is still miraculous to me. But the program has recovered from that tragic coaching tenure, and with luck, the rest of the country will finally start to see that with the product on the field this season.

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You can find more from John at both Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician and on Twitter @JohnCassillo.