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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ACC Football Standout Senior 2013: Syracuse

Jerome Smith Had a Breakout 2012 Campaign for SU; Can He Improve Upon it in 2013?

Jerome Smith Had a Breakout 2012 Campaign for Syracuse; Can He Improve Upon it in 2013?

Last season’s juniors are now this season’s seniors, and with that comes extra responsibility and expectations. In the ACC, while there were plenty of players selected in the NFL Draft, the conference still returns a strong group of seniors — many of whom are set to make a strong impact in their final seasons of eligibility.

Over these few weeks, we’re going team-by-team in the ACC to identify the “standout senior” that’s key to his respective squad, and why he’s so important. Think we should’ve featured another player, though? Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments.

Syracuse Orange: Jerome Smith, RB

Jerome Smith’s not the only key senior in the Syracuse offense — in fact, he’s not even the only key senior running back. But as last season showed, the Orange were markedly better when he performed well, and with all the buzz about the SU ground game this season, all conversations must start with Smith.

Syracuse was 6-1 when Smith racked up 90 or more yards — the only loss being a turnover-riddled disaster against Cincinnati in which he ran for 116 yards. And while that loss stung, it was right in the midst of Smith and the entire SU running game hitting their respective strides; the most important factor in the team’s turnaround from 2-4 midseason to 8-5 by the end. Now, without a proven passing game to drive things, it’ll be up to Smith and fellow senior back Prince-Tyson Gulley to keep the offense on pace with last year’s prolific attack. Both showed off how they could function in featured roles during December’s Pinstripe Bowl (Smith, in particular, amassed 152 rushing yards on 29 carries), and this team could be relying on similar production from both moving forward.
But is that realistic?

For Smith, it would appear so. Once he started receiving a consistent number of carries in 2012, he seemed to flourish in his role as an impact runner. At 5’11″ and 213 pounds, he’s a bit of a bruiser, but when paired with the lightning quick Gulley, it’s an exciting mix. Smith can be productive on limited carries (still had over five yards per rush last year), but ideally, you’re looking at him as the featured rusher at 20 carries or so. He ran for 95 yards or more in all seven games in which he saw 18 or more touches, and it’s likely the coaching staff’s already caught on to that. What they will have to work on a bit, however, is his involvement in the passing game.

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ACC 2013 Spring Football Preview: Syracuse Orange

Can Charley Loeb Succeed Ryan Nassib As the Orange QB This Spring, Or is it Someone Else's Job to Lose?

Can Charley Loeb Succeed Ryan Nassib As the Orange QB This Spring, Or is it Someone Else’s Job to Lose?

As the ACC‘s spring practices get under way, we’ll be previewing the big storylines for each of the league’s 14 (15, in this case) teams. Check back on weekdays for what to look out for during your school’s spring practices and spring game.

Team: Syracuse Orange

Spring Practice Start Date: March 19

Spring Game Date: April 20

Syracuse wrapped up a wild 2012 season by winning six of seven games… and then watching their head coach, Doug Marrone, and seven other staff members walk out the door for the Buffalo Bills. Since then, panic has subsidized for the Orange faithful, but there are still plenty of questions for this group. New head coach Scott Shafer’s committed to keeping the transition as simple as possible (he was the team’s defensive coordinator last year after all), but the success of that strategy relies largely on the personnel. SU must replace several key contributors on both sides of the ball, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to alleviate those issues by the end of spring ball.

First and foremost, the team is faced with as tough a challenge as any in the nation, replacing departed senior quarterback (and program poster boy) Ryan Nassib. After a record-setting career that brought the program back from the depths, Nassib’s off to the NFL (and likely the Bills), and in his place is a massive hole to fill. As of right now, there are four candidates for the job — Charley Loeb, John Kinder, Terrell Hunt and Ashton Broyld — and without much experience (Nassib was a three-year starter), it’s virtually anyone’s game. Plus, whoever this new passer may be will also have to figure out who he’s throwing to. Top targets Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales are both gone as well, leaving the team to wonder if Jarrod West, Jeremiah Kobena and Arkansas transfer Quinta Funderburk can step up as the main receiving options. There’s also the issue of the offensive line, which must try to replace star lineman Justin Pugh as well. In the early goings this spring, the squad’s biggest saving grace may be the backfield, which returns all three top rushers from last year and looks to build upon a strong finish.

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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

Far-Too-Early 2012 ACC Power Rankings (April 16)

Florida State Will Rely Heavily On QB EJ Manuel This Season. Is He Up for the Task?

With spring practices nearing completion, we have another installment of our early power rankings for the entirety of the ACC. As always, we take into account what’s happened both on and off the field, and try not to read too far into what happened in practices this spring. This will be revised monthly throughout the offseason.

1. Florida State Seminoles (LW: 1): The O-line may seem shaky, and the jury’s still out on whether quarterback E.J. Manuel can truly carry this offense, but that hasn’t stopped the hype in Tallahassee. Predicated on defense last year, the Seminoles won’t be above leaning on what should be one of the best units in the country again, if need be. But if forced to go that route, their ceiling may be winning an ACC title — rather than the national championship.

2. Clemson Tigers (LW: 2): A lot’s changing for the Tigers, who are raising the bar for the program after a 10-4 campaign in 2011. New defensive coordinator Brent Venables has hit the ground running since his arrival, and by all accounts his more aggressive style is already rubbing off on a group that desperately needs to improve upon last season’s performance. On the offensive end, fans will be curious to see how much they incorporate the pistol offense, and how well Tajh Boyd adapts to both the new scheme, and new pressures of being the league’s most highly-touted signal-caller.

3. Virginia Tech Hokies (LW: 3): Dissatisfied with offensive production, Virginia Tech has also given the pistol a shot this spring, with varying results. While the team has incorporated the spread with Logan Thomas‘s mobility as the focal point, it appears they’re mixing things up to see what works best with the inexperienced offensive line. Both attacks have their own respective challenges, and it’ll likely come down to which projects best over the course of the year.

4. NC State Woflpack (LW: 4): Off-the-field issues have played a much larger part in NC State’s spring than the program would’ve liked, and the question marks are starting to pop up about how successfully they can really be in 2012. More and more, it’s appearing as if Mike Glennon will have to shoulder much of the load — something that may improve his draft stock, but could also force them to be far too one-dimensional in a year they were originally projected to break through in the ACC. Continue reading