...and we all know what that means- controlled scrimmages, strangely contrived scoring systems, and Christmas colored practice jerseys...
Well, that was this year anyway. Coach Marrone aims to switch to a real game style Spring Game once his program is rolling along, but today was a fun little glimpse of the future of SU Football in the Doug Marrone era.
Obviously the game-style is preferred by many, but for a controlled scrimmage, the Dome had a decent crowd this afternoon for the game, and there was definitely a positive vibe going around. Even though the play was a little sloppy, people know something good is coming out of it. This team is on the way back. There is excitement for Syracuse Football again. I was lucky enough to sit near a number of player family members, including Averin Collier's uncle (very nice guy). He said that he really enjoyed the atmosphere, even when compared to the Spring game at Pitt the previous weekend, which he attended to watch his other nephew, Kevin. He complimented the coaching staff and the fans, and looked forward to seeing the team develop.
Only two players suited up at Quarterback- the current starter Ryan Nassib (Redshirt Freshman), and last years starter Cam Dantley (Senior). Both looked pretty good, in my opinion. They threw some pretty balls, and were able to squeeze passes in tight spaces It wasn't their fault that the receivers left their stick-um at home today (at least for the first half).
I think Nassib is definitely the more impressive of the two. Even for a young player, he has great composure, and a much quicker release than Cam. His ball won't be batted down at the line at the same alarming rate as Dantley, which we saw all too often last season. He has good footwork, and while his long ball is not the prettiest in the world, it usually hits its target. Coach Spence's offense, which consists of a lot of short throws and screens, should allow Nassib to get comfortable playing at this level, and I think more and more of the offense will be opened up for him as he develops. The fact that there was a Minnesota scout in the stands (according to various twitters) also kept the playbook shorter; by the time the season rolls around, I think our offense will look more dynamic than it did today.
Our running game should be a strength this year. We are very deep with Delone Carter, Antwon Bailey, and Averin Collier all playing major roles in the offense. The three all have distinct styles. Carter is a power back, he moves the pile and can get the extra yards with ease. Bailey is the quickest and shiftiest of the three, just ask Charlie Weis. Collier is a bit of a wild card. He redshirted last year, so he doesn't have the game experience, but he seems to have the most balanced style. He really pounds the ball, but also has good speed, and caught the most receptions out of any of the backs. Robert Nieves was also impressive carrying the rock as a fullback type player.
Our receivers are also a deep, talented group. Mike Williams had an excellent catch in the back corner of the endzone for the team's first Touchdown. He is definitely a legitimate threat, but he may still be a little rusty. He uncharacteristically dropped a few balls today. He had been pretty sure handed in the two practices I had attended earlier in the Spring. Donte Davis looked decent, and was the go-to-guy on a few reverse plays. Marcus Sales had a few receptions for decent gains, and Van Chew had a TD on a long ball. All of the receivers were plagued with drops, if they become more reliable, they have the chance to become a very solid corps this season.. The TEs were also strong, I really like Catalina as a receiver, he had some nice plays (aside from one fumble), and Mike Owen broke free over the middle for a TD on one play.
The unit that I'm the most concerned about is the Offensive Line. They were called for a number of holds and false start penalties, and were getting blown up regularly by the defense. Now, our defense really attacks, and that can be hard for a young offensive line to adjust to this early in the season. As an Offensive Tackle in High School myself, I always saw the OLine as the last unit to fully gel. It takes a ton of coordination and practice for a Line to become a solid unit, so I will hang my hat on the fact that they have a lot of time to improve and come together. If they don't, 2009 is going to be a long year. This offense will go as far as the Offensive Line allows them to this year.
The defense, as a whole, looks really good. The knock on Robinson's teams was that they did not attack, and they still gave up big plays. Shafer is the polar opposite. He blitzes, he knocks receivers off the ball, he confuses the offensive line- he is going to make his defense as hard to play against as possible. We may give up some big plays this season- but that was already happening anyway, and this team is going to force more turnovers and is going to hit...hard. Mistakes will happen because of our aggression, not lack thereof. On one play in the second half, Catalina caught a nice short throw and had the ball pretty well secured, but Parker Cantey flew up to the ball, punched it out, and Zary Stewart (who is much faster than I expected), took it about 65 yards for a score.
Not much to say about Special Teams. Long's punts were all very solid, and Austin Wallis made all of his kicks, though one was tipped and just made it over. He has the strength, however his approach is a little funky and he kicks line-drives that can get easily blocked, especially with the questionable protection that we have up front.
The best sign that I've seen this spring is that this team is having fun. Marrone and his staff are going to be harder on his players than the last regime, but he is emphasising fun, and a love and passion for the game, and the players are exuding it on the field. Every time the offense scored a touchdown, they celebrated in the endzone as a team. When the defense stopped Averin Collier four inches from the endzone on 4th down, red shirts swarmed the field to celebrate their victory. This team plays with a passion we didn't always see last year, and in a game like football, passion can make all the difference.
After the game, the team did sprints, stretched, and then all sat at tables in the middle of the field while fans were allowed onto the field to get autographs. Many took advantage of this field access, and there were a ton of kids playing catch with their dads. It was a really nice sight to see, and hopefully it is just the first step in moving this program back to the top of the Big East, and college football.