The sun was back for the fourth session of Spring practice Saturday, and along with the nice weekend weather came a whole crowd of fans, as the Orange put the pads back on and finally got to start the serious hitting.
No longer did the crew of die-hards who came to watch have to settle for viewing simple drills, with players politely going through the motions and avoiding any major contact. Today, the beasts within each player were let off the leash and real football finally made its return to Syracuse.
The hits came fast and furious, with the defense showing the same swarming mentality that made it the top rushing defense in the Big East last season. With six members of last season’s starting front-seven returning, the dominating fashion in which the Orange halted opposing running backs in 2009 doesn’t figure to change much.
All-Big East caliber linebackers Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue are back, along with E.J. Carter and Ryan Gillum and the entire unit was flying around the field making plays and delivering punishment all afternoon.
With nobody else but their own teammates to perform against though, it made for a tough day for the Orange running backs and offensive line. Aside from a few tough runs by Delone Carter, moving the ball on the ground was largely a struggle as the defense gave ball carriers very little room to maneuver.
Even so, there’s plenty of reason for optimism with the running game. The defense is usually ahead of the offense this early in Spring ball, and Syracuse returns several veterans from a line that has paved the way for two different 1,000 yard rushers in the past two seasons, including Carter last year. Also considering that head coach Doug Marrone is an offensive line specialist, it’s a good bet that this unit will be whipped into shape by the start of the season.
The real question mark for the offense in 2010 is really going to be the passing game and today’s scrimmage was encouraging, to say the least. The apparent incumbent, Ryan Nassib, was extremely sharp, completing a number of passes all over the field. He was accurate, made good reads and he continues to get rid of the ball quickly.
Much to Nassib’s benefit, three wide receivers appear to be separating themselves from the rest of the pack.
No one in the Orange secondary has managed to come up with a way to slow Alec Lemon down. Lemon continues to look like the top-flight receiver Syracuse is going to need to fill in the gaping hole that Mike Williams left when he quit the team midway through last season. He appears to be bigger and faster than he was as a freshman last season and he’s also displayed the ability to leap up and rip the ball out of the air.
After Lemon, Van Chew also seems to be emerging as a viable deep-threat. He reeled in a number of long catches on Wednesday and today he was on the receiving end of two more bombs, beating Phillip Thomas one-on-one for the first and then going up between two defenders for the other. He also displayed his fearlessness going over the middle on a number of great catches.
Aaron Weaver, the transfer from Hofstra has almost quietly continued to play great as well, which gives Nassib another big target (6’2, 210 lbs) with solid hands.
The only concern though is whether the passing game has really taken a step forward, or if it’s just a product of a decent quarterback picking on a poor secondary. After all, this unit gave Syracuse the second-to-worst passing defense in the Big East last season.
The potential for improvement is there though, with young talents like Shamarko Thomas, Phillip Thomas and Rishard Anderson all entering their second season, but for now this group is one of the biggest question marks on the team. They did make a few nice plays today, highlighted by a Shamarko Thomas interception, despite allowing Ryan Nassib, and to a lesser extent, Charley Loeb, to have a solid afternoon.
Overall, today’s session was mostly encouraging. You can’t learn much for certain in the Spring, when the players have nobody to beat up on but themselves, but today they did seem to have the appearance of a team that should win some games. There’s a lot to be excited about now and it’s officially time to start counting the days until football season finally begins.