ACC Football 2013 Season Preview: Syracuse Orange

Jerome Smith and the Syracuse Running Game Hope to Guide the Orange Back to the Postseason

Jerome Smith and the Syracuse Running Game Hope to Guide the Orange Back to the Postseason

Team: Syracuse Orange

2012 W-L: 8-5 (5-2 in Big East)

Head Coach: Scott Shafer (0-0; first season)

Returning Starters: 12 (6 Offense, 6 Defense)

After pulling his alma mater out from college football exile (more or less), former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone headed off to “greener” pastures this offseason: Buffalo, to coach the NFL’s Bills. While some might argue that he wasn’t exactly done with the job — after all, this was a program that just a decade or so ago was finishing in the top 15-20 every year — you can’t say he didn’t leave the program in infinitely better shape than how he inherited it. Most important in that is the Orange’s move to the ACC, and now without Marrone, they’ve got quite the challenge ahead of them. There’s faith that new coach Scott Shafer should keep the team on an upward trajectory, but it won’t be easy to keep the small private school from Upstate New York climbing.

All the concern — for this season, anyway — starts off with the changes on offense. QB Ryan Nassib is gone after a superb senior campaign, and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett (the architect of last year’s attack) followed Marrone to Buffalo. Last year’s top two receivers are gone too, as are standout linemen Justin Pugh and Zach Chibane. So needless to say, there’s plenty of rebuilding to be done. To replace Nassib, the team is still deciding between Terrel Hunt and Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen, both of whom look ready for the job (though my money’s on Allen) and a nice change of pace from the former SU record-breaker. Hunt, a junior, is a dual-threat, while Allen is a more polished pro-style passer, and it’s likely both will see plenty of playing time this year. As far as who’s catching passes, it’s Jarrod West and tight end Beckett Wales, most importantly, with a lot of unproven alternatives along with them. The line has more experience than most realize — Sean Hickey and Macky MacPherson have both seen plenty of playing time — and despite the losses, I think this group actually holds up compared to last season. Finally, George McDonald takes over the offense, and admittedly, we don’t really know what we’re getting there.

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ACC Football Positional Rankings 2013: Running Backs

Devonta Freeman and Florida State Headline the ACC's Running Backs for the 2013 Season

Devonta Freeman and Florida State Headline the ACC’s Running Backs for the 2013 Season

While we’re still over two months away from the season, it does indeed seem to be that time of year — when college football blogs like this one and so many others start churning out season preview materials. We’ll be holding off till July and August for the team-by-team season previews, but in the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with taking a look at each position on the field and evaluating ACC squads’ respective strengths and weaknesses.

This week, we’re on to the running backs (you can check out last week’s feature on quarterbacks, too). Though there’s not a whole lot of experience at the position — just one returning back (Syracuse’s Jerome Smith) rushed for 1,000 yards last year — this group makes up for a lot of that in potential. Many of the most talented runners this year will be sophomores or juniors, so that aforementioned experience will come with time. As for those who are seniors, many possess a significant leg-up, which you’ll find reflected here as well.

Keep in mind that these are full unit rankings — not just one player — so just because one individual quarterback is better than another, it doesn’t necessarily mean the team’s entire crop of passers is. Still, disagree with any of these picks? Share your own selections below.

ACC Positional Rankings 2013: Running Backs

1. Florida State Seminoles: Injuries ravaged the Florida State backfield in 2012. But because of that, the team’s top two returning rushers, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., actually have quite a bit of experience under their respective belts (221 carries between them last year). They’re both vertical runners for the most part, doing most of their work in the middle of the line, but Wilder, in particular, also has some pass-catching ability out of the backfield (19 catches for 136 yards and two scores last year). Expect that role to expand this year, while also incorporating Mario Pender, who’s the quickest back on the roster and anxious to contribute after red-shirting last season.

2. Miami Hurricanes: Miami’s ranking here is purely on the strength of sophomore Duke Johnson, and his success is likely to decide how far the ‘Canes go this season. Despite splitting carries with Mike James last year, Johnson still ran for 947 yards and 10 scores, while tacking on another 1,133 yards from receiving and kick returns. With that on his resume in just one season, he’s now being listed among the most dynamic players in the country and will be the focal point of every gameplan against Miami. He won’t be acting alone in the backfield, but there’s no telling what to expect from backups Dallas Crawford or Eduardo Clements either.

3. Syracuse Orange: SU’s offense was largely seen as a pass-first attack in 2012, but its success in the season’s second half was heavily reliant on the running game. The Orange bring back everybody this year, and arguably have one of the deepest backfields in the country. The group will be guided by Jerome Smith (1,171 yards last year), but this will be a multi-back, run-first system. Expect Prince-Tyson Gulley to approach the 200-carry mark as well, while the team gets additional contributions from short-yardage specialist Adonis Ameen-Moore and jack-of-all-trades Ashton Broyld in hybrid WR/RB slot role.

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2012 ACC Football Season Recap: Syracuse Orange

Syracuse Capped Off an Eight-Win 2012 With a Dominating Effort Over West Virginia

Syracuse Capped Off an Eight-Win 2012 With a Dominating Effort Over West Virginia

Team: Syracuse Orange

W-L: 8-5

Postseason: 38-14 New Era Pinstripe Bowl win over West Virginia

Top Offensive Performer: Ryan Nassib, QB

Top Defensive Performer: Brandon Sharpe, DE

Syracuse was looking to leave the conference they founded (the Big East) on a high-note, but things didn’t appear to be going as planned when they started off the year a disappointing 2-4. But then something clicked. The Orange, at one time haunted by the ghosts of a five-game losing streak to close 2011, wrapped up 2012 by winning six of seven, including their second Pinstripe Bowl victory in two years. It was a fitting end to send their senior quarterback (and soon after, head coach, too) out in style.

At the focal point of early August’s practices was a complete revamp of the SU offense. Over the past few seasons, the team appeared to get bogged down by their inability to move the ball (24 points per game in 2011; 22 points per game in 2010), and then-offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett was tasked with fixing the issue. After quickly installing a no-huddle system with spread elements, it appeared the Orange were in business early in September. While the first two games both resulted in losses, the offense appeared to be firing on all cylinders, mostly by the strength of senior QB Ryan Nassib’s arm. In those two early contests alone, Nassib would complete 75 of 132 passes for 804 yards and six scores. But then the wheels began to come off, and thus entered then-coach Doug Marrone’s “tank” package; implementing goal-line elements on various downs and distances, specifically designed for running back Adonis Ameen-Moore. Once the set took hold, it immediately balanced the Syracuse attack, and a group that was floundering by mid-September finished the year scoring 30 points per game, with the  17th-ranked offense in the country. Nassib and wideout Alec Lemon were still the stars of the show, mind you, but what they really needed to be successful was a well-planned rushing attack — something they saw from October onward, as the SU backfield would end the season ranked 40th in the FBS, racking up 187 yards per game.

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ACC 2012 Season Preview: Syracuse Orange

After a Disappointing Finish Last Year, the Heat is On Syracuse Head Coach Doug Marrone to Deliver a Winning Season in 2012

Team: Syracuse Orange

2011 W-L: 5-7 (1-6)

Head Coach: Doug Marrone (17-20; fourth season)

Returning Starters: 12 (5 Offense, 7 Defense)

The 2011 season couldn’t have been more frustrating for the Syracuse Orange. Coming off the high of their first bowl win since 2001, big things were expected from SU under coach Doug Marrone. And yes, there were plenty of big accomplishments — a huge Friday night win over West Virginia at the Carrier Dome, the invite to the ACC and Chandler Jones‘s rise into the mid-first round of the NFL Draft, in particular. But what will stick out most is almost certainly the bad. The media smear campaign against them just because they were charter members of the Big East (oh well). The botched referee call versus Toledo. And of course, the horrendous five-game losing streak to end the season. Needless to say, ‘Cuse fans would love to move on to 2012 and leave last year dead and buried in the backyard.

After scoring 30 or more points in four of their first seven games (all wins), SU would never score more than 21 in any of their final five contests. The running game went stale, and quarterback Ryan Nassib — the picture of accuracy throughout the season’s first seven games — tried too hard to pick up the slack and as a result, began making poor decisions that ultimately removed SU from games completely. From a fan’s point of view, play-calling appeared unimaginative and downright suspect, repeatedly going after the same holes and same receivers with the same maddeningly awful results. But still, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett maintained his position and is back on for another go-around with his Tecmo Bowl playbook. Continue reading