Today’s featured team: Syracuse Orange
After losing their final five games of 2011, the Syracuse Orange are surrounded by questions. What happened to the team that lit up West Virginia back in October? The offense, the defense — all of it? Though that questions will likely remain unanswered, a lot of work needs to be done to replace the team’s key departures. Major contributors on both offense (Antwon Bailey, Nick Provo) and defense (Chandler Jones, Phillip Thomas) are headed to the NFL and head coach Doug Marrone would love nothing more than to have those spots settled this spring. At running back, the Orange are set by most accounts. Rising-juniors Prince-Tyson Gulley and Jerome Smith both showed promise in limited action last year, and at worst, they could split time until a clear starter is chosen.Tight end, on the other hand, features enough unproven targets to make it a complete crapshoot. Lucky for ‘Cuse they’re already settled at quarterback and wide receiver though, giving these other skill positions time to develop. While the seasoned Ryan Nassib won’t have his normally TE safety valve, the hope is that reinstated big-play receiver Marcus Sales can team with SU record-setter Alec Lemon to give the passing game much-needed firepower. Sales’ homerun capabilities were sorely missed in 2011, and we’ll see how quickly he can shake the rust off this spring.
On defense, the loss of both Jones and Thomas are crushing to a unit that was already downright putrid come the end of 2011. In losing Thomas, SU must replace their leading tackler and interceptions leader, while Jones was the heart and soul of the D while constantly demanding double-teams as the team’s only true pass-rusher. With these expectations attached, it’s no wonder there are still so many question marks on this side of the ball going into spring practices. Troubled corner Keon Lyn returns, and it’s expected he’ll jump right back in where he left off (which would be mildly productive, at times). Also coming back for another season is quietly accomplished linebacker Marquis Spruill. Sneaking into the Big East‘s top-25 in tackles during the regular season, Spruill was a welcome sight in the middle of the field for a group that appeared at times as if they’d never wrapped up a ball-carrier in their lives. In year four of Marrone — one in which the fanbase is demanding that he deliver them fully back to prominence — it’ll be up to Spruill, Lyn, Dyshawn Davis and Shamarko Thomas to lead by example both in the spring and fall. Should other role-players emerge, the team (and fans) would be ecstatic, but ideally, it comes down to these four to make up for an underwhelming pass-rush and lackluster speed all-around.
Between Syracuse’s difficult schedule, and the questions on defense, this could be a rough year. But spring ball could at least clear up some of the mess and allow leaders to emerge. And should Sales come back much the same player he was during the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl, look out. Nassib has never had two consistent, highly talented receivers on the field at the same time, and if he keeps progressing, he could do pretty well with the weapons at his disposal in 2012.
Comment, share this post, follow the blog and follow @JohnCassillo on Twitter.