While most of Syracuse University's campus is mentally entrenched in the Orange's current run through this years NCAA Tournament, another major sport took the field on this windy Central New York afternoon.
Today marked the second practice of the spring football season for head coach Doug Marrone, as he enters his second year at the helm of his beloved alma mater.
Here are some notes from today's practice:
-It is very obvious that the team has bought into the coaching staff's offseason strength and conditioning program. Two players that look especially bigger and stronger are senior linebacker Ryan Gillum, and sophomore defensive end Brandon Sharpe.
-Quarterback is one of the big questions this spring. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Nassib played a little bit in certain packages behind Greg Paulus last season, but not all are sold on him being the vaunted "quarterback of the future."
Nassib looks like he has been trying to quicken his release this season, however, it seems to have thrown off his accuracy, as many of his balls sailed over the heads, and far to the side of his intended targets.
-Sophomore Charley Loeb is the other scholarship quarterback in camp. Loeb throws a very nice spiral, and showed a strong arm, but his very long release could mean trouble, as it allows smart defensive backs and linebackers to jump on his passes with relative ease.
-The three-headed Orange monster at running back, senior Delone Carter, junior Antwan Bailey, and junior Averin Collier, all looked bigger, stronger and faster today. Collier especially impressed, showing some great breakaway speed.
-While depth seems to disappear from the wide receiver daily, especially with the recent departure of running back-turned-receiver Mike Jones, the receivers who did play looked very good today.
Sophomore Alec Lemon showed great concentration while hauling in passes, and Hofstra transfer, senior Aaron Weaver, looked very strong, often ripping errant passes out of the hands of defenders. Weaver looks to be a very good contributor as a big target in the receiving corps.
-With the large number of big, strong receivers, it seems like Marrone is emulating the offense he ran with the New Orleans Saints as offensive coordinator. The Saints, this year's Super Bowl champions, utilize a deep squad of big, strong receivers who go after the ball, and Lemon and Weaver especially fit that mold.
-The most impressive receiver, and player today was junior Van Chew. While Chew has made some big plays in the past few seasons for Syracuse, he did not see the field very often.
That changed at today's practice. Chew spent most of the day burning the fast Orange defensive backs, including cornerback and track-star, senior Da'Mon Merkerson. While Weaver and Lemon provide great targets on the short routes, Chew might be the deep threat the Orange needs, and lost with star receiver Mike Williams abrupt departure from the team in the middle of last season.
-Junior receiver Marcus Sales, who came on strong at the end of last season and showed promise during his freshman campaign, had a weak practice. While he should be stepping up and becoming a go-to-guy for the Orange, he seems to be buried on the depth chart behind Chew, Lemon and Weaver.
-A few walk-ons showed some skills in today's drills. Sophomore Cody Morgan, who comes to Syracuse from Milford Academy, played receiver and made some nice catches over the middle, including one where he actually ran over sophomore defensive back Shamarko Thomas. Thomas, who became a cult-like-figure for Orange fans last year with his big hits, also got the worst of a few stand-out runs by the powerful Delone Carter.
-The other Hofstra transfer, senior tight end Jose Cruz, will replace the role Mike Owen leaves behind with his graduation. While donning Owen's No. 85, Cruz showed average-at-best hands, dropping multiple passes. However, listed at 6'4", 250 lbs, Cruz will most likely be a blocking tight end. He did, on one play, show some surprising agility in a quick juke of sophomore defensive back Rishard Anderson on one reception.
-While Cruz did not do much as a target, Syracuse native, junior Thomas Trendowski hauled in some impressive catches at tight end.
-One of the key units to Syracuse's success this fall will be the offensive line. Senior Ryan Bartholomew moves over to full-time center, where he played for an injured Jim McKenzie last season. At guards are senior Andrew Tiller and senior Adam Rosner (left and right respectively). Sophomore Justin Pugh, who the staff is very impressed with, steps in at left tackle, while senior Josh White will play right tackle.
-Syracuse brought seven new players to campus this winter as early enrollees. One of these is freshman linebacker Marquis Spruill. Spruill is physically impressive, standing at around 6'4" and listed at 225 lbs, however, as a true freshman in his second ever college practice, he looked lost in a few drills.
Luckily, senior Derrell Smith has proven to be an excellent "coach on the field," and actively helped Spruill and the other young players as they learn the system.
-Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer seems to be looking to develop depth at the defensive back positions by giving players looks at all positions. While senior Mike Holmes and junior Dorian Graham are primarily safeties, both saw time at cornerback during practice.
-A mysterious No. 22 was on the field for the defense, playing defensive back. While no No. 22 is listed on the roster for the Orange (the number was worn last season by receiver Torian Phillips who has since left the team), speculation is that the player is actually Nassau Community College transfer, junior Olando Fisher, who is entering his first season with Syracuse. Fisher is listed as No. 2 on the official roster, but no No. 2 was seen on the field.
-While the Orange landed one of the nation's best high school kickers in Ross Krautman (Ramapo HS, Franklin Lakes, NJ) in the offseason, incumbent starter, sophomore Ryan Lichtenstein looked really strong today. Lichtenstein is coming off a solid season, which he began as a walk-on, including a game-winning field goal to beat Northwestern University, which clinched Marrone's first win as a head coach.
-One position that has been a huge concern for Syracuse for a few seasons is punt returner. The Orange have gotten little production from their punt return-men in the last few years, and obviously look to shore up the key special teams position.
Walk-on sophomore receiver Colin Reno (who recently transferred to Syracuse from FCS program Holy Cross), Aaron Weaver, and Mike Holmes all took reps returning punts today.
The "Practice MVP" today was definitely Van Chew, with his multiple long receptions against what should be a very solid defensive backfield.
For more from Dan Lyons, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @BlackKnight76 , his official Twitter.