The View From Here: The Offense | Syracusefan.com

The View From Here: The Offense

SWC75

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Since the Dome opened, fans have marveled at the venue as the perfect place to play exciting, wide-open football. The weather is outside and the track fast and we ought to be able to spread the defense, make then cover the whole field, which can’t be done. Then we can hit them in the gaps that develop or burn them deep when they come up to try to close them. Players from all over the country would come play here and be a part of such a dynamic offense. And that has happened- at Houston, Texas Tech, Tulsa, Boise State and Oregon. It hasn’t happened here. For a time we had an innovative offense that combined running the option with deep passes but the idea was to suck the defense into guarding up close on one side of the field with repeated running plays and then occasionally drop back to throw long passes over them. It wasn’t about using the whole field and all your weapons to “spread” the defense out, which is what the top offensive teams are doing now. One year, (1994), four teams in Division One passed the ball less than we did. All were wishbone teams. Our offense worked well when we had NFL talent at the skill positions. When we stopped recruiting talent on that level, the production dropped off to something from a previous era while the rest of college football moved on.

Here is our offensive output in yards or points per game and the ranking among NCAA Division 1A, (BCS teams) in those years, out of 114-120 teams, since the end of the Donovan McNabb era:
YEAR 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003
Rush 164.6 (89) 207.3 (18) 174.7 (41) 188.8 (34) 189.4 (26)
Pass 171.2 (88) 171.0 (92) 154.8 (98) 187.7 (79) 180.3 (91)
Total 335.8 (80) 378.3 (52) 329.4 (93) 376.4 (54) 369.7 (70)
Scoring 25.5 (6.4) 26.7 (51) 25.7 (69) 28.9 (45) 26.6 (62)
YEAR 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Rush 178.7 (31) 106.5 (105) 106.9 (97) 62.7 (118) 148.7 (55)
Pass 170.1 (100) 150.8 (105) 157.1 (103) 229.2 (55) 121.5 (113)
Total 349.0 (78) 257.4 (115) 264.0 (110) 291.9 (114) 270.2 (114)
Scoring 23.9 (74) 13.8 (114) 17.04 (102) 16.4 (116) 18.1 (108)
YEAR 2009 2010
Rush 126.6 (87) 140.2 (76)
Pass 203.8 (78) 182.7 (91)
Total 330.4 (94) 322.9 (97)
Scoring 21.2 (78) 22.2 (93)

We ran the ball fairly well but not wonderfully in the Paqualoni/DeLeone era, not well enough for that to carry the offense as it did at Nebraska and other powerhouse schools. The national leaders in these years averaged 320 yards a game. When G-Rob came in, we couldn’t run it all, which was a big problem. But look at the passing rankings: 88th, 92nd, 98th, 79th, 91st, 100th, 105th, 103rd, 55th, 113th, 78th and 91st. The 55th ranking was in a year when we were the worst rushing team in the country and were passing out of necessity, not proactively. And this is in a fast rack in a Dome.

Our eventual goal, reasonably, is to be a perennial top 25 team with the potential for something more than that when the circumstances are right. I calculated the average numbers that the top passer, runner and receiver had, on average for the teams that finished in the top 25 of last year’s AP poll, (which was done after the bowls: the BCS standings are before the bowls and so not the final poll).

The average quarterback for a top 25 team last year completed 224 of 351 passes, (65.8%) for 2,895 yards and threw 23 touchdown passes and 9 interceptions. Last year, Ryan Nassib completed 202 of 358 passes (.564%) for 2,334 yards, 19 TDs and 8 interceptions. He was the first SU quarterback to complete 200 passes in a season. His accuracy was well short of the top 25 standard, as was noted by SU fans last year. We also complained about his pocket presence- he seemed to panic in a rush and run in the wrong direction to avoid it. But he threw 19 touchdown passes, something only Don McPherson and Donovan McNabb have exceeded. And he did this with a young offensive line and a receiving corps depleted by injuries. He proved in the bowl game that, given protection and a good receivers, he could put up big numbers. I’m not sure about the completion percentage but I think with good injury luck this year, he could match or exceed the other “top 25” standards.

The average top running back for a top 25 team last year carried the ball 199 times for 1093 yards, (a 5.5 average) and 12 TDs. Last year, Delone Carter exceeded the yardage with 231 carries for 1233 yards, (5.3) and 9TDS. Delone lacked explosiveness but was a strong power runner and a good technician between the tackles. But he’s gone. His back-up Antwon Bailey, is smaller, quicker and more versatile. I think he can approach the top 25 standards and also be a threat as a pass receiver. He’s also a fine blocker.

Everyone has a picture in their minds of a block Bailey made in the Pinstripe Bowl where Nassib is throwing what would be a touchdown pass to Marcus Sales. A Kansas State defender is next to him, upside down. Bailey is next to both , having knocked the defender off his feet, (actually the guy tried to leap over Bailey who is 5-7) and looking for someone else to block. But the block that impressed me the most was in another scoring play. It was a flea-flicker that opened the scoring for SU. Bailey did what all backs do on a flea-flicker: he took the handoff, ran almost to the line of scrimmage, turned and tossed the ball back to the quarterback. Most backs just stand there or turn around to block in the middle of the line. But Bailey saw an edge rusher coming in unblocked and ran to the outside and knocked the guy backwards, which allowed Nassib to complete the pass for a score. He’s complete football player.
(This page is about Marcus Sales but check out Bailey’s blocks in the first two highlights:
http://www.nunesmagician.com/2011/8/26/2385554/syracuse-football-get-to-know-your-orange-pariah-5-marcus-sales )

The average leading pass receiver on a top 25 team last year caught 63 passes for 947 yards and 8 touchdowns. Syracuse has never had a player catch 63 passes, although Kevin Johnson and Mike Williams have caught 60. Only Tommy Kane, Rob Moore and Marvin Harrison have accumulated that amount of yardage, with Harrison the leader at 1131. The eight touchdowns have been matched or exceeded several times. The question is: do we have anyone who can do that this year? Marcus Sales, who caught three long TD passes in the Pinstripe Bowl was thought to be our best returning receiver but took himself out of the running by getting arrested for (allegedly) trying to sell drugs with his brother. The actual top returning receiver is Van Chew, who caught 41 for 611 yards and 5 TDs, well short of the top 25 standards, although the average per catch is similar, (14.9 vs. 15.0). Van got off to a great start with 30 catches for 498 yards and 4 scores in the first 7 games. But injuries rendered him ineffective after that. With a full healthy season, he could approach the top 25 standard.

The board doesn't seem to like long posts so I'll continue this one- I'll try it with a reply.
 

SWC75

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But the top offensive teams don’t just have one runner or one receiver who had a big year. Nevada got 1206 yards rushing from their quarterback to go with 1610 from their top tailback. Auburn got 1473/1078. Wisconsin was four yards away from having three 1000 yard rushers. Arkansas had four guys with more catches than Chew. Boise State had two guys with 71 catches. Oklahoma State had a player with 68 catches and one with 111. Oklahoma had one player with 61 catches, one with 71 and one with- 131! Do we have other players who could work in tandem with Bailey and Chew to put up big numbers? Maybe, although probably not on the level of those teams.

Technically, Bailey’s back-up or partner at tailback, (SU, like most schools likes to alternate them so the #1 guy is really #1A and the other guy #1B), is Prince-Tyson Gulley, who like Bailey, is a scat-back type at 5-9 181 except that having been in the program two years longer, “Ant” has added a lot more bulk and strength, (5-7 201). Ideally you want the 1B guy to be a different style of runner than the 1A guy, as Bailey was with Carter last year. For that reason, the thinking is that we may see more of the wonderfully named, (yes, even more wonderful than “Prince-Tyson Gully”), Adonis Ameen-Moore, (he’s built like Adonis, there’s more of him and he’s mean). Carter was 5-10 225 as a senior. Moore as a freshman is 5-10 244. Carter was, as they say “ripped”. We don’t known whether Moore needs to lose a little baby fat or is a monster but people are talking about Ron Dayne, who was 5-10 250 and became a Heisman Trophy winner and the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher or Jerome Bettis who was 5-11 252 and ran for 13,662 yards in the NFL. But we don’t need Moore to be Dayne or Bettis or even Carter. We just need him to be a change of pace from Bailey, who will be the star runner this year. Gulley will probably fill Bailey’s role of last year next year, with Moore being the new Carter, if things work out. Gully got sidetracked when he got stabbed at a party over the summer but the wounds were apparently minor as he’s back practicing with the team has looked OK. He also had something of a fumbling problem last year but is the quickest of the tailbacks. Jerome Smith (5-10 213) is another power option and Stephen Rene, (5-7 176) a water-sprite of a back.

I’m a long-time advocate of the two back backfield with both backs being offensive threats in their own right. I grew up with Nance and Csonka next to Floyd Little and as late as our undefeated 1987 season, Darryl Johnston ran for 564 yards from the fullback position, including a memorable touchdown run in the West Virginia game which made it easier for Robert Drummond to run for 747 yards and Michael Owens for 531. That team ran for 211 yards per game. Last year Delone Carter ran for 1233 yards but the team only averaged 140 yards rushing a game. Bailey ran for 554 and the rest of the team 110 yards, (35 if you include quarterback sacks). Of the players listed as “fullbacks“, Adam Harris carried the ball for 21 yards and his back-up, Tomba Kose, never carried it at all. Cater and Bailey would have made an ideal fullback-halfback combination (and Bailey would still have been an excellent pass receiver: he had 35 catches as the 1B guy last year) and Moore and Bailey would have been a potentially great combination this year. But we won’t see it. Harris and Kose are back this year and we’ll see them- blocking- if there’s a fullback on the field at all.
 

SWC75

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Van Chew’s colleague at starting wide receiver will be Alec Lemon. Chew is skinny 6-1 175 and quick but is surprisingly strong, (he can bench press over 400 pounds). Lemon is a big receiver at 6-2 202 and was good enough to catch 103 passes for 1616 yards and 23 TDS as a high school senior. He hasn’t been that spectacular at Syracuse but has put together a solid career despite battling injuries. In two years he has 61 catches for 692 yards and 5 scores. He’s considered a “possession” receiver, despite some memorable drops. But it will be interesting to see what he can do with two years of experience behind him and fully healthy.

But the best receiver in the fall camp was Jarrod West, whom Marrone managed to get away from Stanford at the last moment and was thought to be a potentially big factor last year until he broke a bone in his foot just before the season began. He’s healthy now and could turn out to be the surprise star of the year. He’s another big receiver, 6-2 204 and can catch over the middle or go deep. Sophomore Adrian Flemming, at 6-3 196 is another and “showed flashes” last year, to use a favorite G-Rob term. Freshmen Keenan Hale (6-3 185) and Kyle Foster (6-2 205) are in the same mold and impressed in camp. Nassib will have plenty of tall targets to throw to.

But Marrone wants a real burner in the mix. The fastest guy on the team and the best athlete is Dorian Graham, a 4.3 man in the 40, is somewhat smaller than the others at 5-10 185. He was switched from the defensive backfield last year after all the injuries but never actually caught a pass in a game. Many of us wondered if he couldn’t do the team more good on the other side of the line of scrimmage but the coaches love his speed and his downfield blocking, (which is probably the most under-rated thing in football: blocking by a wide receiver can make the difference between a 10 yard gain and a 50 yard gain). And in the spring game, they were running a play with more than two wide-outs where Graham stayed in the flat and caught an easy pass behind the wide-out on that side who went deep. It worked for a couple of pretty good gains so we may see some of that this year. Graham was an explosive kick-returner. We just need to find ways of getting him the ball. Another speedster is freshman Jeremiah Kobena, (5-11 174), who looked like a laser beam in the spring game. I thought he looked even faster than Graham. But he’s had a series of drops in practice that puts him in the same boat as Graham.

Marrone likes to throw to tight ends and he has a good one in Nick Provo, who caught 33 balls last year. Nick has the reputation of a pass-catching rather than a blocking tight end but he’s built himself up to 6-4 250 and may be a pro prospect. There’s talk of him catching 50 passes this year. His back-ups are Becket Wales, who seems to have a lot of potential and David Stevens, a surprising discovery- a guy who was thought to just be a blocker but has been found to have very good hands, (maybe he could lend them to Graham or Kobena).

But maybe the real key to an offense is the line. It might be the most important unit of any team. If they can dominate the line of scrimmage, your team can dominate the game. If they get dominated, the other team is going to have the ball most of the time and with a great advantage in field position. (We found that out last year against Pittsburgh, Louisville, Connecticut and Boston College.) We haven’t had a really good offensive line in years, which is a big reason why, despite our constant attempts to run the ball in the Pasqualoni/Deleone era, we were never one of the most productive running teams. The last really good O-line we had was the group that was recruited after the Cherry Bowl. That moved in and basically took over the line in 1987. They were a huge reason for our turn-around from 5-6 to 11-0 that year. They graduated after Coach Mac’s last year and all of them were drafted or signed as free agents by pro teams. We’ve had four offensive linemen drafted by the NFL and twelve signed as free agents in the two decades since.

Doug Marrone was an All-East offensive tackle and I’m sure he’s making it his business to see that his team has a quality offensive line. He has a fine coach, Greg Atkins, with considerable experience in the SEC at Georgia and Tennessee but I imagine Marrone is taking a special interest in his work, (and he’s having to fill in for him while Atkins is dealing with some health problems). They’ve almost had to start from scratch from the disaster of the G-Rob era where the linemen were heavy, (320 pounds+ from tackle to tackle but with much of that spilling over their belts). Andrew Tiller came in from junior college at 6-6 and 380. They’ve got him down to 334 and he’s said to have quick feet for such a big man. I’m hoping he’ll make it big so we can give him the nickname he was born to have: “Roto”. But Justin Pugh 6-6 292 is probably our best guy. Michael Hay 6-5 283 could be good if he controls his temper. Zach Chibane (6-5 293) is said to have pro potential. All started last year.

The big question is at center. Ryan Bartholomew, a former guard, started at center and was a hell of blocker but somehow couldn’t snap the ball backwards unless the quarterback was under him. It eliminated the shotgun and wildcat from our offense. Late in the season, Marrone started inserting Mackey MacPherson, Dick’s grandson, into the line-up because he could snap the ball back the necessary 10 feet, (or whatever it is). Mackey was originally considered just a long snapper for kicks, (and maybe just a favor to Dick). Seeing him in for a regular offensive play was a surprise. He’s listed as 6-2 269 but those who have stood next to him estimate he’s more like 5-11 255. A few years ago that would have been fine but Bartholomew was 6-2 298 and weight room warrior, (the strongest O-linemen at the NFL combine). When Mackey was in not only did the other team know that we were going to the shotgun or wildcat but It seemed to me that the blocking scheme was geared to help Mackey out, with an emphasis to the inside. There was no penetration up the middle at all. But the edge rushers had an open lane to the quarterback. Now Mackey is going to be the starter. There are statements from camp that he’s a “great technician” and is “smart and has quick feet and is an accomplished shotgun snapper”. An offensive line is as strong as it’s weakest link. Let’s hope Mackey isn’t a weak link. There’s depth here but the injury bug really hit the reserves, including two concussions, (those practices must really be something), so there’s some unexpected uncertainty here.

With all the losses on defense and uncertain punting situation, the offense may have to carry this team. But even if they are improved, last year this team was the 76th best rushing team, the 91st best passing team, the 97th best total offensive team and the 93rd best scoring team in the country. They could be a lot better and still be nothing special. Meanwhile the conference is thinking offense with Dana Holgerson, the offensive coordinator for Texas Tech, Houston and last year Oklahoma State taking over at West Virginia and Todd Graham, whose Tulsa teams set records the new head man at Pittsburgh. It will take a lot for our offense to give us an advantage over our opponents this year.
 

BlackKnight76

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Awesome write up SWC.

I legitimately never noticed Bailey's block on the Flea Flicker. That was awesome. So few backs would have the frame of mind to look back and take out the edge rusher like that, he's such a heady player. So easy to root for.
 

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