For most programs, a four-win season would be considered a massive failure. In fact, it’s hard to even fathom a world in which losing twice as many games as you win could be considered successful.
However, after the dreadful Greg Robinson era of Syracuse football in which the Orange won a total of 10 games in four years, last season’s 4-8 record under rookie head coach Doug Marrone can only be viewed as progress. In fact, all things considered, 2009 was probably about as successful as anyone could have reasonably hoped for.
And while the majority of the folks in Syracuse are currently focused on the fifth-ranked Orange basketball team and the impending madness of March, there is also some buzz surrounding the football program as spring practice approaches.
With all-Big East caliber players like Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue anchoring the defense, as well as talented young players like Shamarko Thomas, Alec Lemon, Phillip Thomas and Chandler Jones returning after strong freshman seasons, there is a lot to be optimistic about in Syracuse.
Of course, there are also a number of question marks and plenty of intriguing story lines for the Orange faithful to keep an eye on when the calendar flips to March and Doug Marrone’s squad takes the practice field once again.
When Rob Spence was hired to coordinate the offense last year, he came in with a great reputation from his days with Clemson. The only real knock on him was that his scheme relied too heavily on screen passes.
For whatever reason though, whether Doug Marrone disapproved of repetitive play calling, or if the offense just didn’t improve enough in general, or if he wasn’t cutting it on the recruiting trail, Spence is now out as offensive coordinator and Marrone will handle calling the plays himself.
This raises a whole slew of new questions. How will the scheme differ? Is Syracuse really going back to the West Coast Offense as new wide receivers coach Rob Moore hinted?
I can’t really imagine that. The possibility that they might go back to the offense that became famous in Syracuse for its futility under Greg Robinson is something I’ll have to see to believe. Perhaps it will share the same name as that offense, but in all likelihood that is where the similarity will end.
There's also the question of Marrone's play calling prowess. He may have been the offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints before returning home to Syracuse, but he's never had the responsibility of calling the plays. Now the entire offense is at his command, and for better or worse, we'll see what he's got when the season finally arrives.
We can talk about Greg Paulus and his accomplishments all day, but whenever the topic of Syracuse’s improvement in 2009 comes up, the story really begins and ends with the defense.
Led by linebacker Derrell Smith and coordinated by the maniacal Scott Shafer, each and every time the Syracuse defense took the field it was a pure blitzkrieg assault on the opposing offense. The Orange finished tied for 16th in the nation in sacks, and lead the Big East in rushing defense by allowing just a touch over 100 yards per game.
Sadly though, while most opposing running backs spent more time lying on the ground near the line of scrimmage than actually running, quarterbacks generally had a lot less trouble with picking apart the Orange secondary. The passing defense is an area that will need to improve if the Orange are going to consistently stop Big East offenses in 2010.
With the possible exception of Mike Holmes, nobody in the secondary has a firm hold on a starting job coming into the spring. Max Suter should be a safe bet to fill the other safety position, but then again Shamarko Thomas really came on strong in the second half of his freshman season, and could challenge him.
The cornerback positions are almost completely wide open. Shamarko Thomas could compete here as well and Phillip Thomas, Kevyn Scott and De’Mon Merkerson will all see the field this year, but there should be an open competition for the starting jobs. Also in the mix will be junior college transfer, Olando Fisher.
These guys are going to need to work hard in the spring to prove themselves, because the competition is only going to get tougher once fall arrives. There’s a good chance that this group will be pushed even further by a couple speedy freshmen from Florida, Keondrick Lyn and Jeremi Wilkes.
As spring practice draws near The Post-Standard’s beat reporter for Syracuse football, Donnie Webb, becomes an Orange fan’s best friend. His blog contains an abundance of need-to-know information and updates on any developing stories. In the months that the Orange can be found on the field, his blog is worth checking multiple times a day. The coverage he provides is one of the joys of being an Orange fan.
However, there is another member of the Post-Standard’s sports writing squad that has become infamous within the Syracuse community. A man of many, many, many words, with analogies and phrases so dated that even the baby boomers think he needs to get with the times.
A man who was once featured on the Deadspin piece, "Why Your Hometown Columnist Sucks," and whose “To The Point,” billing is more misleading than Fox News’ “Fair and Balanced” slogan.
I’m speaking of course, about the one and only Bud Poliquin.
Many of The Post-Standard’s readers will tell you they never read Poliquin’s columns anymore and frankly, I’m one of those people. The only time I willingly read anything that he prints is when he publishes something so comical that it pops up on one of the many fan blogs covering SU athletics. Now, with the combination of March Madness and spring practice only a month away, Bud is sure to be kicking it into high gear.
The only real question is whether he can outdo some of the downright silly work he’s published over the years. Can the same person who repeatedly referred to Greg Paulus as a “whiz-bang” recruit, and likened Wesley Johnson to a “Lippizzaner stepping high while pulling a beer wagon,” manage to once again stun Syracuse with his ridiculously flowery prose, or have we all finally become desensitized?
Well gad-zooks Bud, I just don’t think I could possibly bet against you pulling off yet another laughable grandiose analogy that will surely have Post-Standard readers saying, “Egads!”
While the majority of the 2010 recruiting class will have to wait until the fall to start practicing with the team, there will be seven new faces ready to take the field in the spring. Entering the fold are freshman Max Beaulieu, Brice Hawkes, and Marcus Spruill, JUCO transfers Olando Fisher and Michael Hay as well as two transfers from Hofstra, Aaron Weaver and Jose Cruz.
One of the most interesting things to keep an eye on during spring practice will be the contribution of these new players, and whether any of them will make a push for a starting job.
Marcus Spruill was the highest rated player in Syracuse’s 2010 recruiting class according to Rivals.com. He was the only player given four-stars by them. Listed at 6’1" and 220 lbs, he already has the size to compete for a spot at outside linebacker alongside Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue. Brice Hawkes is also a linebacker, but may need some time in the weight room before he’s a threat to win a starting job. The fact that he’s already enrolled and ready to participate in spring practice will help him mature quicker though.
Max Beaulieu, while not rated as high as Spruill in terms of stars, may actually be the gem of the 2010 class. I have no faith in the star rankings, and prefer to instead worry about what kind of offers the player gets out of high school, and Beaulieu had an impressive pile of them. Rivals lists Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska, Purdue, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wake Forest and Wisconsin having all offered this Florida defensive lineman. He could definitely push for playing time at defensive end, and may at some point slide inside to defensive tackle.
The two JUCO transfers, Olando Fisher and Michael Hay could both contribute early. Fisher being a defensive back will bolster a secondary in serious need of talent and depth, and Hay could potentially win a starting job on the offensive line.
Aaron Weaver and Jose Cruz, who both transferred to Syracuse after Hofstra decided to axe their football program, also come in at positions of need. Weaver is wide receiver who lead Hofstra with 63 receptions for 797 yards and four touchdowns last season. Compare that to the 324 yards and three touchdowns that Syracuse’s top returning receiver, Marcus Sales had in 2009 and you have to think that Weaver will see the field early and often.
Jose Cruz will function primarily as a blocking tight end, and at the minimum will provide solid depth and experience to a group light on both.
In 2010, the focus of the Orange offense should undoubtedly be the running game. The Orange will bring back a deep stable of running backs, fronted by Delone Carter who plowed through defenders for over 1,000 yards by himself last year.
However, the success or failure of this offense will depend largely on whoever steps up to replace Greg Paulus at quarterback. The incumbent would appear to be sophomore Ryan Nassib, who saw plenty of action as a backup last year, appearing in nine games and throwing for 422 yards and three touchdowns.
As would be expected from a freshman quarterback, he did struggle at times in his limited action, completing only 53 percent of his passes compared to Paulus’ 67.7 percent. He should be the favorite at this point, but the job is not going to be given to him. He’ll need to perform well to hold off the pack of young quarterbacks behind him, including redshirt freshman Charley Loeb who will be his main competition in the spring.
Nassib’s true test will come in the fall though, when two new freshman Jonny Miller and Jon Kinder arrive on the hill. Until then he’ll need to put together a strong spring to establish himself as the top dog and keep the three freshman from nipping at his heels.