Teams & Conferences

2015 College Football Preview: Syracuse Orange

Above all else, Syracuse must remain healthy this offseason.

By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

The marginally talented Orange lack the margin for error needed to compete in the ACC when challenges are met. So, when injuries struck in 2014, particularly at quarterback, the program predictably slumped to 3-9, with the nine losses coming in the final 10 games.

Any hopes of returning to the postseason, and taking some heat off third-year coach Scott Shafer, will hinge on the play of QB Terrel Hunt, who missed the final seven games with a broken leg. Syracuse will need Hunt to deliver a career year to compensate for a roster that will once again stack up poorly compared to the majority of the conference.

While Hunt is central to Syracuse’s fortunes in 2015, one player alone won’t uplift a program that’s won more than eight games in a season just once this century. The Orange is actually quite vanilla, the definition of mediocrity, even more so now as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Hunt is going to need help from a supporting cast that lost last year’s top two backs and leading receiver. Plus, he’ll have a new center, Rob Trudo, and a new blindside protector, Ivan Foy, now that John Miller and Sean Hickey, respectively, have graduated.

The situation on defense is rather precarious as well, thanks to the loss of eight starters. Coordinator Chuck Bullough is being forced to rebuild, though there is a foundation in place. Syracuse believes it houses risers at each level, ends Ron Thompson and Isaiah Johnson, linebackers Zaire Franklin and Marqez Hodge and CB Julian Whigham.

It’ll now be up to the balance of the unit to play at a higher level. The Orange in recent years has been defined by its ground troops on offense and underrated D, the latter of which must gel when practice resumes in August.

After overachieving in 2013 and missing the mark in 2014, Syracuse needs to decide on its identity in 2015. As an ACC contender, its threat level is irrefutably low. Instead, the Orange is out to capture one of the league’s automatic bowl berths, while dismissing the notion that 7-6 two years ago is about as good as it gets in these parts. Falling short of the .500 mark this fall will put the entire staff on probation, beginning with Shafer.

Free Daily Lock Pick: Kansas St. vs. Stanford – September 2nd (100% Confidence Release)

What to watch for on offense: A flexible offense. Coordinator Tim Lester isn’t locking in to a specific offensive attack, because he wants his kids to be able to pivot to attack the particular weaknesses of opposing defenses. Lester will also employ plenty of hybrids, such as Ervin Phillips and Ashton Broyld, who perform multiple functions well. The Orange plan to be diverse in 2015, mixing and matching its personnel to create more downfield opportunities for an offense that scored just 47 points over last year’s final five games.

What to watch for on defense: Prepping for an overhaul. Eight starters from a year ago are gone, including the program’s top five tacklers. For the staff, it’ll mean working with a completely reshuffled two-deep, especially in the secondary. Coordinator Chuck Bullough wants to blitz often, maximizing his speed and athleticism from the second level. But until the defensive backs prove they can handle flying solo, selling out will be a very risky proposition for the pass defense and the Orange as a whole.

The team will be far better if… the offense turns the corner in Tim Lester’s first full season as the coordinator. Lester is making significant changes with the personnel and the playbook. It must be effective in 2015, or else Syracuse will again be grasping ineffectively to reach .500. After ranking 110th or lower nationally in total offense, scoring offense, yards per play, third-down conversions and red-zone touchdown percentage, it’s elementary what separates the Orange from being competitive once again.

The Schedule: The Orange have to come out of September 3-1, or it’s going to be a long season. There can’t be a trip-up against Wake Forest in the ACC opener or against a dangerous Central Michigan team. Lose either game, and it’s make-or-break time at home against LSU.
– There’s a problem after September – Syracuse is on the road. The Orange get a week off after LSU, and then go on the road for four games in five weeks and five in seven.
– Playing Pitt and at Virginia in interdivision play isn’t that bad, but considering the brutal road dates against the Atlantic teams, the Orange have to win both of those games.
– About those division games, going to Florida State, Louisville and NC State in a four week span won’t be easy, especially considering the home oasis is against Clemson.
– WATCH OUT FOR … The October 10th date at South Florida. It’s the first road game of the year coming after the LSU battle and a week off. Will the team be revitalized and ready to roll? USF will be looking for a key victory over an ACC team.

Best offensive player: Senior QB Terrel Hunt. For an offense that now covets diversity and flexibility in its approach, Hunt is the right man to be taking snaps in 2015. He’s still developing as a passer, yes, but he’s come a long way since arriving in 2011. And as runner, he’s physical and tough to bring down, with an ability to operate the zone-read option. The Orange is excited to see what Hunt can do with a full season of health and a full season of tutelage under proven coordinator Tim Lester.

Best defensive player: Junior DE Ron Thompson. Thompson is poised to become the exception to the rule suggesting Syracuse is in transition—and in trouble—on defense entering 2015. At long last, Thompson is playing a position that best fits his skill set after being an undersized tackle a year ago. His superior athleticism is going to cause fits for opposing tackles, while attracting the attention of pro scouts who’ve been eager to see what he can accomplish with a full season lining up on the edge or as a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker.

Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Terrel Hunt. And it’s not even up for debate. The upcoming season at Syracuse hinges squarely on the development of the offense. And the offense Hunt to be its leader, both physically and vocally. Sure, detractors are going to snipe about the quarterback’s inconsistency and accuracy issues. But Hunt gives the Orange its best chance to win games, and he’ll be needed to shoulder the load, and even carry the team, at times in the fall.

The season will be a success if … the Orange grinds out six wins and the bowl-eligibility that come with them. Yeah, it would require doubling last year’s output, but half of the goal could be reached in the first three games, with visits from Rhode Island, Wake Forest and Central Michigan. In fact, Syracuse doesn’t have to leave the state until an Oct. 10 trip to Tampa to face lowly South Florida. This is not a scary football team, but .500 is realistic if it can capture toss-up games against the likes of Virginia, NC State and Boston College.

Key game: Sept. 12 vs. Wake Forest. The Orange must start quickly in 2015 to erase the memory of last season’s 0-5 finish. And the Week 2 visit from the Demon Deacons qualifies as a must-win if the program has any hopes of returning to the postseason in December. Syracuse hammered Wake in Winston-Salem last Oct. 18, even though QB Terrel Hunt was down with an injury. With a healthy Hunt, the Orange plans to roll, copping an ACC victory and moving a step closer to going 3-0 before LSU visits on Sept. 26.

2014 Fun Stats:
– Points per game: Syracuse 17.0 – Opponents 24.3
– Time of possession: Syracuse 26:41 – Opponents 33:19
– Third Down Conversion %: Syracuse 34.0% – Opponents 39.3%

What you need to know about the offense: The offense was nothing short of deplorable in 2014. If it could have wrong, it did, from injuries and poor execution to ‘next man in’ only sounding good in theory. But there’s hope, and not just because the only direction from here is up. The Orange didn’t have dual-threat QB Terrel Hunt—or coordinator Tim Lester—in charge for an entire season. Hunt broke his leg on Oct. 3, while Lester succeeded the demoted George McDonald a week later. Hunt plus Lester for a full year has brought optimism, though there are still plenty of caveats to be addressed. Lester, naturally, wants to open up the attack with more downhill running and shots downfield. However, the coach needs complements to WR Steve Ishmael, an emerging star, and for backs Devante McFarlane and George Morris II to become the latest one-two punch on the ground. Plus, the O-line is retooling without star LT Sean Hickey and C John Miller. Syracuse will be better on offense this season, but by how much is a subject of great debate that hinges on the play of the quarterback.

What you need to know: Under coordinator Chuck Bullough and head coach Scott Shafer, Syracuse has been an attacking, overachieving D that often outperforms its individual talent. Maintaining that trend, though, is going to require a lot of sweat equity this offseason. Gone from last season are eight starters and the top five tacklers, creating opportunities … and pressure. The back seven took a particular beating, with the graduation of LB Cameron Lynch and the early departure of S Durell Eskridge. Bullough now needs his next generation of playmakers to step to the forefront and seize the opening for a starring role. DE Ron Thompson is poised to erupt this season, with Isaiah Johnson serving as the strongside end on the opposite side. Linebackers Zaire Franklin and Marqez Hodge won’t be Lynch and Dyshawn Davis overnight, but their ceilings are high. However, the fulcrum will be senior CB Julian Whigham, the lone returning starter to a defensive backfield that was singed for a league-high 65.2% completion percentage in 2014.

Players You Need To Know

1. QB Terrel Hunt, Sr.
When Hunt fractured his fibula on Oct. 3, the Orange lost its identity … and its hope. The playmaking dual-threat was all set to explode into the face of the program in 2014 when fate stepped into the picture. Sure, Hunt’s junior year was off to a rocky start. But the program believes its franchise quarterback is capable of a breakthrough finale. The 6-3, 234-pounder runs like a fullback when he leaves the pocket, and was flashing improvements as a passer when he closed out 2013 by being named the Texas Bowl MVP.

2. DE Ron Thompson, Jr.
The best is still ahead for Thompson, the converted tight end who played out of position at defensive tackle a year ago. The 6-3, 257-pound junior is an end, which is where he belongs on every down in 2015. He’s an outstanding athlete—and former blue-chip recruit—who now needs to be educated on the finer points of rushing the passer. Even as a miscast interior lineman last season, Thompson managed to notch 32 tackles, seven stops for loss, three sacks, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles.

3. WR Steve Ishmael, Soph.
If QB Terrel Hunt remains healthy and Ishmael keeps developing, the Orange will have a sneaky-good pitch-and-catch combo in 2015. Ishmael laid the groundwork for a promising career as a rookie, finishing second on the team with 27 receptions for 415 yards and three touchdowns. While not a blazer, he has good size, 6-2 and 184 pounds, to complement the ball skills, balance and tireless work ethic to blossom into a bona fide threat on the outside.

4. C Rob Trudo, Sr.
Trudo is poised to anchor the Orange line, but possibly from a new position in 2015. The veteran of 33 starts at guard could move further inside to replace the graduated John Miller at the pivot. The 6-4, 300-pound Trudo has been a steady performer throughout his Syracuse career, flashing the raw power and the mean streak to be an especially effective run blocker.

5. LB Zaire Franklin, Soph.
The Orange is excited about the future of Franklin in Upstate New York. An injury to Marqez Hodge last November created an opportunity for Franklin, who immediately impressed the coaching staff. Now, after making 44 stops, five tackles for loss and two sacks, the 6-0, 238-pounder from Philadelphia is set to start in the middle. Franklin is tough at the point of attack and plays with the headiness to be one of the quarterbacks of the D.

6. LB Marqez Hodge, Jr.
Hodge is about to become a more important piece of the defensive puzzle, since linebackers Dyshawn Davis and Cameron Lynch have graduated. Hodge is just 5-11 and 218 pounds, but he’s a good fit at weakside after playing in the middle in 2014. He gets downhill quickly, plays with good run instincts and wraps up in space. The Miami native is looking to build on last season, which produced 38 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss and three sacks in just nine games.

7. RB Devante McFarlane, Jr.
In the all-important battle for carries in the Orange offense, McFarlane has an edge on George Morris II, who will also be promoted in a depleted backfield. The 6-0, 198-pound McFarlane took a backseat to Prince-Tyson Gulley and Adonis Ameen-Moore in 2014, carrying just 28 times for 169 yards. But now that his touches are about to increase significantly, his toughness and ability to break tackles could result in a very productive junior year.

8. P Riley Dixon, Sr.
In Dixon, the Orange boasts one of the better punters in the ACC. The 6-5, 221-pound former walk-on has been a consistent contributor on special teams the last two years, averaging more than 42 yards in 2013 and 2014. Dixon’s most memorable moment last season, though, involved his arm, as he tossed a game-winning touchdown pass to defeat Villanova in the opener.

9. ATH Ervin Phillips, Soph.
Phillips technically has no position, which is code for the Orange planning to employ his speed and shiftiness whenever—and wherever—possible. The 5-11, 179-pounder will be an important tool in this attack, lining up on the wing, in the slot and in the backfield. He’ll also be a dangerous threat on jet sweeps. Phillips, an underrated blocker, flashed his multi-dimensional skill set as a rookie last year by rushing for 194 yards and catching 15 passes.

10. CB Julian Whigham, Sr.
Whigham is set to take on more of a leadership role out of the secondary now that three of last year’s regulars are gone. He started 11 games a season ago, making 28 tackles. But he broke up just a pair of passes and failed to make an interception, too often struggling against the better receivers on the schedule. If Whigham can sharpen his fundamentals, he has the long, 6-1, 185-pound frame—and enormous hands—to become a more effective pass defender.