Then and Now (FB-2020)

SWC75

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This is my annual look back at my SU football preview to see how much of what I talked about transpired – and what went in the opposite direction. The quotes from my August post are italics.

Then: (Reviewing the disappointing 2019 season.) “The realization set in that we were not ‘back’, at least in terms of 15 or 22 year streaks of sustained success. Our breakthrough was not an 11-0 season like 1987. It was a 10-3 season and the follow-up wasn’t a 10-2 season like 1988. What 2018 proved was that we are now a program that can produce a year like that but we are going to have to build up to it. If we have veteran, talented performers in key positions, (and other programs help us out a bit by being ‘down’ at the right time) , we can have a season like that ... The conference as a whole is full of southern schools in states that emphasize the sport more than New York does. There are no soft spots to land. We’ve got to be good to be mediocre and really good to be good. ‘Great’ is getting hard to imagine.”

Now: It’s especially hard to imagine even ‘good’ after a 1-10 season. But will everybody able to come back, (some seniors are), the experience so many young players got, a new recruiting class coming in and the transfer portal becoming a cornucopia, the prospects for getting back on track toward another season like 2018 are good. But that doesn’t mean that 2021 will be that season. For that reason, AD John Wildhack has made it clear that Dino Babers will remain our coach, and I think that that is a good thing.


Then: “Meanwhile the schedule, which was set up for a 4-0 non-conference start to give Dino a lift toward that much needed winning season, has been trashed and replaced with a 10 game conference marathon with the toughest games on the road, Plus a game vs. Liberty which will accomplish nothing.”

Now: And we accomplished very little. We caught Liberty when they were as good as an ACC team, beating us, Virginia Tech and nearly NC State. We won exactly one game, against Georgia Tech, who gifted us with 5 turnovers and 15 penalties or we might have bene 0-11. We need that potential 4-0 start each year to gather victories and confidence before the season gets tough. This year was all gristle.


Then: “There was a lot of excitement when Tommy DeVito was recruited. He was our highest rated quarterback recruit since Donovan McNabb and the first big one of the Dino Babers era, the kind of QB recruit we’d hoped would want to come here with Dino’s souped –up offense…The DeVito Era began in earnest last year but most people were disappointed. We expected Tommy to own the SU record book after one year but those records are still standing. He was on the run constantly because of the offensive line troubles and wound up getting sacked 43 teams. He seemed to be unable to “feel the pressure” and know which direction to run to avoid it. He also lacked Dungey’s ability to pass on the run and also his ability to keep the defense honest by running the ball himself. He was built, it seemed to stand in a reliable pocket and run the plays the way they were diagramed so he could make his pretty passes to wide-open receivers…He wasn’t as big and strong as Dungey, who was almost Csonka-like in his running style but he’s not small and he is faster than Eric was and broke off some big runs as the season progressed, one a 60 TD run. With his style of avoiding contact and going into a slide when there wasn’t an opening, he should be able to stay healthier than Eric did- if we can fix our line problems.”

Now: We didn’t and Tommy failed to even duplicate his numbers from last year. He only played in four games before getting injured. He only completed 50% of his passes, down from 63% the year before. He went from 19TD passes to 4. The one thing he did well was to avoid turnovers. We were +12 on the season when he went down, -9 afterwards.


Then: “The big issue is who will be his back-up and, ultimately, who will follow him? The only other quarterback on the roster with any experience is Rex Culpepper, who was at one time thought to be Dungey’s eventual replacement until he got sidetracked by testicular cancer, which he overcame and the arrival of DeVito, which he did not. At one point they were switching Rex to tight end. But they decided they needed him back at QB. But it’s significant that Clayton Welch, who did everything so slowly he looked as if he was posing for pictures, beat Rex out for the back-up spot. Rex threw one pass on the year and it was incomplete. In 2017 he threw 75 passes and completed 45, but for 2TDs and 3 interceptions. If one of the young guys they’ve brought in starts looking good in practice, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rex moves down the depth chart again in favor of someone who will have a bigger role to play in the future.”

Now: That’s a big question about this season: if Clayton Welch could beat out Rex Culpepper in 2019, why couldn’t Jacobian Morgan or Dillon Markiewicz beat Rex out this year? Dino said that there wasn’t an opportunity to get players beyond the second string ‘reps’ with the first string and that held them back. In four out of five years Dino has lost his starting quarterback. Maybe he should take another look at how he doles out practice time.


Then: In reviewing the receiving corps, I went over what I’d written in past years about our recruits who seemed very impressive to me, some of of whom were no longer with the team: Trishton Jackson, Cameron Jordan, Kevin Johnson Jr. and Kevin Mital and some of whom never cracked the two deep: the oft-injured Ed Hendrix, Anthony Queeley, Russell Thompson-Bishop and Sharod Johnson. Jordan, Mital, Hendrix, Queeley and Thompson-Bishop were exactly the sort of big, strong wide-out we’ve bene crying for. Instead we had Taj Harris, who is 6-2 but listed as 164 pounds, (Dino claimed on his show that he was heavier than that- they checked and he was 171), Nykeim Johnson at 5-8 170. The other spot had bene Jackson’s and was now open.

On Harris: “At this point it’s hard to tell what direction he’s going in, both in terms of his body and his production. Dino Babers seems to have no doubt: Taj was #80 last year but is #3 this year. Single digits are reserved for elite players at SU, (since we can’t use #44). Jackson left this message for Harris: “He was telling me to become a leader. Be more vocal. I’m a junior now, and I have to step up and be the leader to show the guys because we have a nice underbelly.” (That’s what it said.)

On Johnson: “Slot receivers are supposed to be explosive guys who can catch a short pass or a kick, find a seam and be off to the races. Johnson got the ball 28 times last year and we gained 108 yards, it an average of 3.9 yards a play. That’s basically nothing for this type of player.”

On Queeley, I’d quoted the blurb when he came out of high school: “a three star recruit from Florida. “ Caught 73 passes for 1,063 yards (14.6 avg.) and seven touchdowns as a junior … As a senior captain in 2017, made 77 receptions for 1,197 yards (15.5 avg.) and 13 TDs” Nunes: “Put up exactly the type of numbers we’d like to see more of at SU” and added “Hendrix, the highest rated of the recruits in this group, has missed the entirety of both seasons with leg injuries. He’s going to give it another try. In the spring depth chart he was listed behind Jordan at one wide-out spot, (which would put him in the starting line-up with Jordan gone) while Queeley was behind Harris at the other … we should see plenty of Hendrix and Queeley and I’m looking forward to that.”

Now: Harris had his best year yet with 58 catches, 733 yards and 5TDs. But he seemed to alternate good plays with bad, dropping a couple long passes. Even in his best game where he caught 13TDs, Dino said that he “left some meat on the bone”. There were fewer emotional incidents. He was certainly our #1 option but he seemed well short of his ceiling. Johnson, on t he other hand, was fully healthy, which he hadn’t been the year before and really showed his talents by catching 20 passes for 323 yards and 4TDs, returning 17 kickoffs for 395 yards and 12 punts for 169 yards, (a TD was called back against Clemson). He also rushed for 82 yards on 8 carries. That’s 57 touches for 969 yards and 4 scores. That’s 17.0 yards per touch. He had a 61 yard run, pass catches of 83 and 60 yards, a 49 yard kickoff return and a 27 yard punt return. If Nykeim comes back for next year, Dino and his OC have to figure out how to get him the ball more. We saw little of Hendrix, the highest rated recruit in this group, who got hurt for the third year in a row but did finally mange to catch a pass- 3 of them for 24 yards. Queeley was the guy who emerged as a solid ‘possession’ type receiver at 6-2 193. He had 37 for 378 yards and 2 scores.


Then: I was excited about our tight ends and so was everybody else. “In fact, we will be depending on a lot of guys on this team proving that there’s plenty there and Aaron (Hackett) and Luke Benson certainly showed that last year. They were much more reliably productive than our wide-outs and slots and should be a big part of our offense this year. Aaron caught 23 balls for 205 yards and 6TDs while Luke, a high school track star, had 176 yards and 3 scores on only 8 catches, (that’s 22 yards per catch!). It’s true that Dino has not historically used his tight ends a lot but he needs to use them this year because they are our most proven performers among the receivers.”

Now: One guy who apparently wasn’t impressed with our tight ends was our new offensive coordinator, Sterlin Gilbert. Hackett had 10 catches for 63 yards and 2 scores while the speedy Benson had the same in 6 catches. That’s 31 catches for 381 yards and 9TDs last year vs. 16 catches for 126 yards and 4 scores this year, a loss of 15 catches, 255 yards and 5 scores in a year where we had one of the worst offenses in the country. Babers on his radio show said two things about this: that whether we want our tight ends to catch passes or block depends on what defense the other team lined up in and that Benson had good all-out speed but that “he takes a while to get going”. Good teams impose their will on the other team. They don’t just run the plays the defense will let them run. And Benson was able to get going fast enough to score some long touchdowns in 2019. We never threw long to him in 2020. Hackett has now transferred out, perhaps because he wasn’t being used enough to display his skills for the NFL. We’ll see next year what they do with Benson, who has a couple guys behind him, (6-5 225 Steve Mahar and 6-7 250 Max Mang – love that name), who are bigger than he is and might prove to be better blockers. I would think that a guy who can make the tough catches over the middle and ahs the speed to take it the distance would be quite a weapon and would set up everything else Dino likes to do.


Then: “In 2018, Eric Dungey ran for 949 positive yards, (mostly on planned runs), got thrown for 195 yards in losses, (almost all on sacks) for a net of 754, (4.1 per carry), and scored 15 touchdowns. Moe Neal rushed for a net 869 yards, (an excellent 5.6) and 5TDs. Dontae Strickland gained 588 yards (4.9) and 6 scores. Jarveon Howard was 315 (4.6) and 7. Markenzie Pierre, once thought to be our biggest hope for a good running game, was hardly used, getting 8 carries for 36 yards (4.4) and no acquaintance with the end zone.

Last year Tommy DeVito ran for 396 positive yards but was thrown for 274 yards in losses for a net of only 122, (1.1) and 2 scores, That was a very significant loss of offense vs. his predecessor. If you delete the 43 sacks, he carried the ball 69 times to get those 396 positive yards, an average of 5.7 yards per carry, so Tommy is a running threat but not as prolific as Eric was."


Now: This year, officially Tommy DeVito, Rex Culpepper and Jacobian Morgan ‘carried’ the ball 81 times for -66 yards. But the NCAA includes sacks in a quarterback’s ‘rushing’ total. Our quarterbacks were sacked 38 times this year for -222 yards, so their real rushing totals were 43 carries, (including scrambles that got positive yards), for 156 yards. But that still means that the quarterback’s contribution to the running game was minimal compared to the Dungey era. It was entirely up to the running backs to provide a running game and we had only one of them in the game at a time.


Then: “Abdul Adams, the Oklahoma transfer with the gaudy stats, (9 yards a carry, including a 99 yard run vs. Baylor), had something of a disappointing season, with just 336 yards, a 3.9 average and 3TDs. He’s capable of much more and we hope to see it this year…. Jarveon Howard has been our power guy, which is why he had 7TDs in only 68 rushing attempts as a freshman. He was down to 3TDs last year as our goal line ‘attack’ collapsed to nearly G-Rob levels of inefficiency. He managed to average 4.4 yards per carry for a total of 337… Markenzie Pierre is virtually the same size as Howard and looked like the same player to me in his high school tape…. if we should have some injuries and have to send Markenzie in there, people shouldn’t expect some huge drop-off in production…..Jawhar Jordan doesn’t have the size but he’s probably the fastest guy on the team and he sees the whole field and can turn on a dime. He IS a threat to score whenever he gets the ball. If he can grow into the role of a feature back, he could set some records here. For now he’s a change-up runner, giving the defense something different to deal with and a dynamic kick-returner who could revitalize that as a weapon for this team”

Now: Adams and Howard both ‘opted out’, an option designed as a response to the pandemic. There were rumors that they actually intended to declare for the NFL draft and just didn’t want to play this year to avoid injury, (or maybe Covid 19). Their minimal achievements here hardly recommend them to the NFL at this point. Pierre totally failed to take advent age of the opportunity their absence gave him, gaining 48 yards in 21 carries. He never crossed the goal line in three years here. Jordan played in three games before going out with a ‘lower body injury’. He didn’t dazzle before that, gaining 72 yards in 29 carries, none longer than 10 yards. He caught 5 passes for 34 yards. One went for 18 yards, 9which means that the other 4 were for 16 yards). He returned one kick-off for 22 yards. He never saw the end zone either. And then they all got Pipped - twice.


Then: “Here comes Sean Tucker, a 3 star from Maryland, (meaning he’d be a 4 star if he went to Maryland). He’s bigger that Jordan but like him has 4.3 speed. He’s no zig-zagger but he’s another guy who can put defenders in the rear view mirror in a hurry… I talked about Cooper Lutz, who is now listed as a running back and Trebor Pena, who I think should be, in the receivers section and their highlight videos are there. They strike me as generally similar to Jordan and Tucker: smaller but quicker than Adams, Howard and Pierre and potentially exciting players if they get the chance. Nunes: “Coming off his redshirt season, Lutz didn’t see any action. He was still pegged as a wide receiver last season, and didn’t break through the depth chart there. Lutz is now listed as a running back, the position he played in high school. He’ll be somewhere down the mix behind the combo of Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard, but may be able to grab some snaps on special teams or in a flex role…Last season Pena accrued an impressive stat line, rushing for 1,666 total yards from scrimmage and 23 touchdowns. 2020 projections: Playing running back, receiver, safety and returner in high school definitely ups his options for getting on the field.”

Now: The best thing that happened all season was Tucker getting his chance. He burst out with a 38 yard run that got us going against Georgia Tech, twisting his way out of a tackle with a 360 flip and bolting into the end zone. He rushed for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns that day, the first of three 100 yard rushing games, the last against Notre Dame, where he zigged, zagged and zipped his way 40 yards to score. He got banged up himself, missing the Wake Forest game and playing others hurt, as so many of our players did this year. But he still managed to run for 626 yards in 137 carries (4.6) and 4TDs. He also caught 8 passes for 113 yards, most of it in three big chunks: 27, 26 and 37 yards. Sean is 5-10 and weighs 202 yards. That seems to be the optimum size for a running back these days. And he’s comparably as fast as the 5-9 172 Jordan, who seemed over-matched running directly into the line, which seems to be the dominant running play in this offense. Sean’s been hand-timed in 4.29 in the 40 yards dash. Jawhar has been electronically timed in 4.37. He’s got the power to break tackles. And he is a zig-zagger when he wants to be.

Lutz was pressed into service as an alternate to Tucker and then as a replacement when Sean had to sit out the Wake Forest game. In that game he rushed for 81 yards and on 15 carries and caught 4 passes for 25 yards. Then, in the finale against Notre Dame, he bolted 80 yards for a touchdown, winding up with 114, giving us two 100 yard rushers against a team that hadn’t allowed one all season. Cooper is a solid runner with good speed and also a good pass catcher, making him very valuable on fourth down. If these two were our 5th and 6th string running backs, than this is one place where our recruiting certainly isn’t lacking. I’ll add in Mr. Pena, who had a 98 yard kick-off return against NC State. I think like Lutz, Pena might be in the mix at running back in the future. If Adams and Howard are gone and having gone through 6th string this year, we may need him.


Then: “Syracuse is a classic case of a non-football powerhouse who has to compete with powerhouses and recruits exciting players in what I call the ‘speed’ positions but struggles to recruit at the same level in the ‘strength‘ positions that really determine who is a powerhouse and who isn’t… Last year it seemed possible we’d have another decent line. Our best lineman, Airon Servais, was switching from center to tackle. Sam Heckel, with plenty of experience at both center and guard would replace him in the middle. Massive Evan Adams, (6-6 352) would hold down one guard spot and the massive and massively ambitious Dakota Davis would be the other guard. The one open position was the other tackle spot and that was to be filled by Ryan Alexander, a grad transfer from South Alabama. We’d had good luck with a grad transfer tackle the year before, Koda Martin from Texas A&M.

Then the cards started falling, one by one. Servais, for some reason showed up at 273, 19 pounds lighter than in 2018. Heckle got hurt in the opener and never played again, necessitating Servais moving back to center and the insertion of redshirt freshman Carlos Vetterello at tackle. It seemed a curious choice as we had a 4 star prospect at that spot in Qadir White, who at 6-7 336 was much bigger than the 6-4 283 Vetterello, who had been a 3 star prospect. But those things can happen. Both Vetterello and Alexander were terrible, giving us a weakness at both tackle spots. Servais got pushed around more than he had the previous year at his lighter weight. Davis did OK but Adams seemed to be a statue at his colossal weight.

Dino didn’t fire his veteran offensive line coach, Mike Cavanaugh. Instead he demoted Alexander who then left the program. Vetterello and Servais switched positions, which, amazingly worked. Reserve Patrick Davis, (no relation to Dakota), got to play more and played well. Then there was Matthew Bergeron, a true freshman from Canada who had been wowing the coaches in practice and started pancaking defenders when he got into games. The offense began to improve and we averaged 41 points in our last three games after averaging 24 in the first nine games.

Servais, Veterrello, the Davises and Bergeron are back. Another huge guy, Chris Bleich, a 6-6 332 transfer who started for Florida has arrived. What has not arrived is an NCAA waiver based on ‘family hardship’ that would allow him to play immediately. It’s suggested he could replace Adams at guard. Dakota Davis was not on the March 7 spring depth chart but is still on the roster and a June 22 article from NunesMagician.com describes him as “One of the four “penned in” starters at this point, Davis should be an even more impressive contribution to the line with an offseason of knowing who he’ll be working next to, in Matthew Bergeron and Carlos Vetterello. The trio showed a good bit of chemistry toward the end of last year and can hopefully turn that into a strength this season.” That gives us a likely starting line-up, without Bleich of Matthew Bergeron (6-4 312), Dakota Davis (6-5 327), Carlos Vettorello (6-4 289) Pat Davis (6-5 311) and Airon Servais, who has now built himself up to (6-6) 309 after being 291 in the spring, an apparent attempt to correct the mistake of slimming down too much last year.”


Now: Dino said before the season that the line had injury problems but that he expected the ‘cavalry’ to arrive after the first month. It never really did. Chris Bleich never got his waiver form the NCAA and was recovering from surgery anyway. It’s not clear how much of a help he could have been. Dakota Davis played briefly against Georgia Tech but didn’t return full time until the Wake Forest game. Pat Davis was hurt in the opener against North Carolina and missed the rest of the season. Airon Servais was playing on one good leg most of the year and was often seen helping our quarterback up after giving up a sack. Massive Qadir White, who was supposed to be the anchor of our line by now with Tyrone Sampson, both 4 star prospects, (Sampson never even showed up: he’s at Fresno State), has yet to play a down for us in three years here. Promising back-ups Anthony Red and Will Froumy and Anthony Red also never played a down due to injury.

The first red flag was when Chris Elmore showed up as a starter on the depth chart. Elmore, always an enthusiastic and aggressive player, had played fullback, tight end and, briefly on the defensive line. At 288 pounds, he had the heft for the assignment but most modern offensive linemen are much taller than 6 feet even and he’s never played there before. It turns out we had to have him or we would have lack the minimum number of available offensive linemen under ACC rules. And, amazingly he turned out to be perhaps our best offensive linemen during the season, which he had saved.

As the season progressed, our line play improved a bit. Even in the shut-out loss to Louisville, Sean Tucker ran for 93 yards on 16 carries, (5.8). The thing is, Louisville decided to take away our passing game and we passed for 45 yards. The next week NC State decided to take away our rushing attack and we ran for 3 yards. Whatever the other team didn’t want us to do, we couldn’t do.

After two awful years in the offensive line, we are due to for a healthy year. If we could put together a line of a healthy Servais, (who, likely disgusted with what happened this year has announced that he’ll be back next year), the Davises, Belich and Veterrello with Elmore, (who hasn’t decided yet), Red, Froumy, Darius Tisdale, who started with the Davises out, Josh Ilaoa, the first of a possible Hawaiian pipeline who played some center for us this year, it could make a huge difference. This might also be an area where the transfer portal could make a big difference.


Then: We switched to a 3-3-5 offense, perhaps an acknowledgement that it’s hard to get top linemen to come here. “With only three positions to fill, (if they stick with the 3-3-5 concept), we certainly have numbers here with 17 players competing for the three up front positions. But with Robinson, Coleman, Berry and Ruff not among them, we are going to have get used to hearing some new names here. (Kingsley) Jonathan, (McKinley ‘Bear’) Williams and (Josh) Black will provide three experienced starters but after that there will be a high learning curve. It’s the same problem as the offensive line: we can put together pretty good starting line but we can’t replace those guys like Clemson or the other better teams in the conference could and our two deep won’t be up to their level. And all three starters will be seniors so we need to work some of the younger guys into the game to prepare for next year. Will we find another Robinson or Coleman? It will be tough to get two guys that good at the same time again.

Reading about the 3-3-5, there doesn’t really seem to be a place for a Robinson or a Coleman in this offense. In fact, one article referred to all three spots as “tackles”. The middle position, nose tackle, (they once called it middle guard), is the most thankless position in football. You are right in the middle of the action, taking the brunt of the offensive charge so that other players can get the glory. It’s sort of a one man Battle of the Little Big Horn. That will be Williams’ job and he’s going to set himself up over the center’s shoulder in a slanted position like Joe Klecko used to do for the Jets. Black and Jonathan will be the ‘ends’ but their greater responsibility will be to tie up blockers so the linebackers and defensive backs can get the glory. Williams is 291. Black has added 12 pounds to come in at 282. Jonathan at 264 might have a harder time of it in this defense. The strength of the 3-3-5 will be its versatility: the linebackers will literally back the line on running plays and will often join the pass rush. At times a d-back might blitz to make it seven guys. But the linebackers can also give us 8 guys to defend against the pass. But I think that we will be vulnerable to a power running game, trying to meet Boston College, Pittsburgh or Clemson at the point of attack with three down linemen and some linebackers and defensive backs.


Now: We had a horrible stretch in mid-season when Georgia Tech, Duke, and Liberty rushed for a total of 976 yards against us but then we had a stretch of 5 straight games where nobody ran for 200 yards. None of Pittsburgh, Clemson or Boston College managed to do that. That ended with the Notre Dame game, where the Irish ran for 283 – but 94 of those came on one play after the game was out of reach. This defense takes a lot of chances and makes a lot of big plays. We had 70 tackles for a loss for 316 yards and forced 24 turnovers, amazingly the most in the country! But we also give up a lot of yards. We were 112th in total defense with 464 yards per game, 106th in rushing defense with 209 yards per game and 93rd in passing with 255 yards per game. But another factor in this is that the offense can’t maintain control of the ball and so the defense is on the field way too much. The offense only got 145 first downs in 11 games, (an average of 13), compared to 282 by the opposition (26 per game) and got off 656 plays, (60 per game) to 877, (80 per game). We also wound up with 21 turnovers of our own. SU had the ball an average of 24 minutes a game to 35. Basically, the defense was on the field for 2/3 of the game. That not only enable the other team to have more chances to gain yardage but it wore out our guys, who often saw the quality of their effort decline as the game progressed. Injuries to top players like Andre Cisco, Trill Williams and Eric Coley didn’t help didn’t help. Overall, I felt that our defense played pretty well and their numbers would have shown it if they’d had more help form the offense.

The big problem now is that all three linemen up front were seniors and only Black has announced that he’s coming back. The most successful back-up, Cody Roscoe is still another senior. Juniors Curtis Harper and Caleb Okechukwu saw a lot of action. I think the 3-3-5 works but this is another area where the transfer portal is going to look interesting.


Then: “This will be the third straight year that we have no returning starters at the linebacker position. The trend off the last two years is that the new guys get off to a shaky start, start to figure it out in mid-season and are playing pretty well by the end of the season, at which point things had been mostly decided. That could happen again. Dino has promised that will not happen again and it seems unlikely to as we have no senior linebackers this year. Unless the new guys are so good that they are all going to jump to the NFL, we’ll get to see them grow up over the next couple of years.

Which leaves us to discuss quality and experience. We had two four star recruits last year at this position, Mikel Jones and Lee Kopgba, (pronounced Koba). One problem: Jones, who saw considerable action last year and looked good, is 6-0 211. Kpogba is a bit bigger at 6-1 224. Babers has stated that he needs big linebackers for this defense: they are going to do a lot of ‘line backing’ and will sometimes set up on the line of scrimmage. He needs guys who can hold their own in the heavy traffic. Tyrell Richards, who was listed as a defensive end last year and is 6-4 234 is more the type he’s looking for now. In the spring depth chart, Richards was the ‘Will’, (Weakside linebacker), backed up by Kpogba. Jones was behind Geoff Cantin-Arku (6-4 230) at the ‘Mike’, (Middle linebacker). The ‘Sam’ (Strongside- meaning the side the tight end lines up on, linebacker), was Steve Linden, 6-5 226 backed up by the now departed Kadeem Trotter (6-2, 226)… Stefon Thompson… joined the team in the spring to get a head start. At 6-0 235 pounds he already has the heft they are looking for… Marlowe Wax … could wind up there or here, depending on where he’s needed. He’s got a similar build to Thompson’s and the same number of stars… Steve Linton played in three games as a freshman and got two tackles, both in the blow-out win over Duke."


Now: Unlike Sampson and White in the offensive line, two 4 star linebackers we recruited a couple of years ago are really making their presence felt in the linebacking crew. Mikel Jones led the team in tackles and has been a turnover machine, personally forcing 6 of them. Kopgba has become known as the team’s hardest hitter. He reminds e of a legendary hitter form the Coach Mac years, Tim Pidgeon, whose hits could be heard all over the Dome, the roof of which became familiar to our opponents. Cantin-Arku had an active year with 61 tackles, 7 for a loss and four sacks. Thompson had only 36 tackles but 7.5 five of them, (meaning that he shared in an 8th) were TFL’s. Richards was hurt much of the season as was Linton, who had a promising start, allowing Wax to see a lot of action. He was active and also hit hard ‘Waxing’ his opponents. He wound up with 32 tackles with 5.5 TFLs. It was an impressive group and not one of them was a senior. Richards was the only junior so we are set here for the next couple of years after several years of rebuilding from scratch in this unit.


Then: “This is our pride and joy. Dino and his staff out-did themselves two years ago bringing in Andre Cisco, Eric Coley, Iffy Melifonwu and Trill Williams. All four guys were clearly a cut above the types of players we’d been recruiting for our defensive backfield for years. These guys didn’t just look like potential starters or even potential all-Americans. They looked like guys who would playing on Sundays. But first they were going to play for us!"

Now: But not for long. If there was one moment that symbolized this year it was when, during a warm-up for the Georgia Tech game, wideout Ed Hendrix bumped into our All-American safety Andre Cisco, who sustained a ‘lower leg injury’ and was declared out for the year. Then Cisco announced that he had played his last for Syracuse and would declare for the draft. Later Trill Williams, after multiple injuries, made the same two decisions- to shut it down after 5 games and announce that he would leave for the pros. Eric Coley didn’t say he was leaving but never played after the Pitt game, the second of the year. My dream of watching these four players evolve over four years into the best defensive backfield in the country went the way of my dream that a Mets pitching rotation of Matt Harvey, Zach Wheeler, Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz, (who started consecutive games exactly once).

Then: "Aman Greenwood shockingly beat out lauded fellow redshirt freshman Neil Nunn for the free safety spot in the spring. He’s a 3 star in his own right. Hopefully this is a comment on Greenwood’s development, not Nunn’s. He’s a bit small at 5-10 180. His nickname is ““Smurph”. He played a bit in the Holy Cross game but had no stats. Neil Nunn was a 4 star from Florida and “Rated one of the top safety prospects in the country”. Getting him was major recurring coup…Adrian Cole is also kind of smallish at 5-10 171 but the 3 star from Florida made his way into the spring two deep behind Melifonwu. Garrett Williams was Trill Williams back-up on the spring chart. He’s a 3 star in his own right. You know you’ve got depth when you can replace Williams with Williams. Cam Jonas was a high 3 star from Florida who tore his ACL and has yet to play in any games. I’m anxious to see what he can do because a lot of people are high on him….Ja’Had Carter was rated the #48 ‘athlete’ in the country, which means he could play a number of positions…Rob Hanna is another 3 star Florida prospect…He should be another athletic defensive back that can step up and get a starting role as early as ‘21.” Ben Labrosse is from Canada, where we’ve gotten a lot of good players."

Now: All these guys saw a lot of action in the wake of the injuries. Garrett Williams emerged as a star on the level of Cisco and Trill Williams, making 64 tackles. He was credited with just two interceptions but it seemed like more, especially after he made a spectacular 39 yard pick six against Clemson, cutting through their team and across the field to make a big score that kept us in that game. The other was a 31 yarder vs. Louisville. He and Melifonwu were the only pair of corners in the country who hadn’t given up a TD pass until NC State got one on both of them in the 10th game of the season. Ja’Had Carter also stood out, making several big plays including an interception and lateral to Trill Williams for a score. Greenwood played hard but also got picked on a lot. Hanna wasn’t physically ready to play safety at this level but did it anyway. Nunn tore his ACL in the fourth game. Cole Jonas and Labrosse saw some action, (Jonas is now in the transfer portal. The excellent and prolific recruiting Babers and his staff have done here came in handy and the future still seems bright here even without Andre and Trill.


Then: “Andre Szmyt is the best in the business, winning the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best kicker as a freshman while leading the nation in scoring. The team did worse in 2019 but he was as good as ever. In two years he’s kicked 47 of 54 field goals (87%) and 100 of 101 extra points, (99%) for 241 points. He’s had three field goals of 50 yards or more and is 34 for 35 inside the 40. Worry about something else…. Nolan Cooney, like Rex Culpepper, is a cancer survivor. He’s also part of a recent trend to make another kicker, rather than a back-up QB as holder for the place kicks and he should continue in that role while competing for the now open punting spot and also to do the kickoffs.”

Now: Szmyt is still the best in the business but nobody knows it because we our offense can’t put him on the field enough. In 2018, Andre led the country in scoring with 151 points and won the Lou Groza award. This year he scored 50 points and won nothing. He didn’t get on the field against Louisville as we not only didn’t score any touchdown but we didn’t get close enough for a field goal. Cooney did a good job of booming the ball but lacked the versatility of his predecessor, Sterling Hofrichter. Sterling in 2019 had only 10 punts returned for a total of 17 yards. Nolan had 26 returned for 170 yards. Nolan had a longer gross average, 44.78 to 43.86 but a lesser net average, 41.68 to 43.03.


Then: “Riley had a disappointing senior year but here comes Jawhar Jordan, who looked like greased lightning last year. He “returned four kickoffs for 114 yards (28.5 avg.)” for SU last year and he “returned 20 kickoffs for 499 yards (25.0 avg.) and one touchdown, and eight punts for 131 yards (16.4 avg.) and a touchdown in his career” in high school. (Cuse.com). Nykeim Johnson was the alternative to Riley but wasn’t impressive last season. “Also has returned 11 kickoffs for 217 yards (19.7 avg.) and two punts for eight yards (4.0)” (Cuse.com). That’s got to improve if he is to hold off Jordan in this role.”

Now: Jordan was held off by injuries but Johnson had a big year, averaging 14.1 yards per punt return and 23.2 yards per kick off return. He never scored a touchdown that counted but he was always a threat to and got many a drive off to a good start.


Then: “To say it’s going to be difficult to engineer a winning season with just one non-conference game and road games with Clemson. Louisville, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh. Will Dino be given a pass on this year, considering the circumstances? I think he will by the school, the local media and knowledgeable fans but not by the national media and undecided recruits. That will place a great deal of pressure on Babers and his staff in 2021. In the meantime the issue for 2020 is: What can they make out of this season? If we could somehow engineer a winning record against this schedule and get to a bowl game, it would be a great accomplishment and a huge boost to the program just when we need a new pair of wings”

Now: Our wings got clipped. But I never waivered from my position that Dino should be given a pass on this year. The problem is, the losses hurt just as much as they did in a season that has high hopes and high importance, (like next year, for instance). The pain built up until our nerve endings numbed over to insulate us from the ordeal. But it led to the sort of impatience and disgust that can undermine coaching tenures. I think we all need to take a deep breath, clam down and see what happens next year.
 

SoBristol

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Amazing summary of your season preview, and recap. Thanks for doing that.

it is worth mentioning that our first game lineup on offense stayed intact all season, except Jordan going down early and being upgraded by Tucker (and then Lutz for one game). Dakota Davis was out in the Spring and August, then returned to his guard spot in November. The single major loss was Tommy at QB, where Rex was the only backup who had ever played a down. Two RBs opted out preseason, but my focus here is on the durability of the guys who started and played. Morgan took that hard sack in his second game subbing for Rex and was held out of the final November games.

We lost our safeties (Cisco & Williams in season - with Cisco being an injury in warm-ups) but the rest of the defense was 95% intact all season, apart from a few guys missing a game or two with minor dings (Richards is one example, Thompson another). and the reserve db Nunn who had a season ending leg injury.
 

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