Syracuse has rejuvenated energy heading into what could be a bowl-or-bust Year 7 under Dino Babers. The head coach overhauled his staff, a shakeup highlighted by the additions of offensive coordinator Robert Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck — two products of the Bronco Mendenhall tree who head to Central New York from Virginia.
That offensive brain trust will look to develop a passing game to complement the rushing success established around All-America running back Sean Tucker and dual-threat quarterback Garrett Shrader — a duo that combined for 2,277 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground last year.
On the other side of the ball, a back eight that returns each of its starters will need a young defensive line to grow up quickly after the team’s top five contributors from last fall exited the program.
In their way: a daunting schedule that starts with a home game against Louisville and includes arguably the toughest four-game stretch in recent program history.
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Previewing Syracuse’s Offense for 2022
Shrader returns as the projected starting quarterback, tasked with reviving what was one of the nation’s worst air attacks. SU ranked 121st in the Football Bowl Subdivision last year, averaging 158.2 passing yards per game. And the unit’s imbalance contributed to Syracuse scoring just 24.9 points per game, good for 91st nationally.
Having spent the 2020 season working as a wide receiver at Mississippi State, Shrader believes his accrual of consistent QB reps will lead to a more productive second season in orange. The bruising 6’4″, 228-pound playmaker completed 52.6 percent of his passes for 1,445 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions in 2021. Before finishing the year with a pair of scoring strikes against Pittsburgh, though, Shrader went three full games without throwing a TD.
The path to moving the ball through the air, however, goes through the offensive line and receiving corps. A front five that has ranked near the bottom of the FBS in sacks and pressures allowed each of the last three years is still looking to solidify its center and right tackle positions with offers gradually trickling out to transfer targets over the course of the offseason.
And a receiving corps that doesn’t have a single player with more than 600 yards of production in his time at SU is searching for individuals to separate from the pack. Babers rotated through all of his scholarship pass-catchers over the course of spring practice as Anae and new outside receivers coach Michael Johnson evaluated returners and newcomers such as Michigan State transfer CJ Hayes.
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Previewing Syracuse’s Defense for 2022
The front of defensive coordinator Tony White’s 3-3-5 system saw four seniors graduate at the end of last season, while tackle Curtis Harper transferred to Akron. That leaves just three scholarship returnees who’ve played meaningful action, none of whom saw more than Caleb Okechukwu’s 258 snaps in 2021, per Pro Football Focus.
Second-year defensive tackle Terry Lockett and rangy, explosive edge rusher Steve Linton also project to take on considerable roles, though that trio’s size — totaling just 750 pounds combined — raises questions to go along with their limited experience.
SU returns one of the ACC’s top linebacker trios in Mikel Jones, Marlowe Wax and Stefon Thompson, a similarly proven cornerback duo in Garrett Williams and Duce Chestnut and a bevy of proven safeties, boosted by the winter additions of Rutgers transfer Alijah Clark and Louisville transfer Bralyn Oliver.
How well the defensive line holds up, particularly in early-down run defense, will correlate directly to playmaking opportunities for the veterans behind them. As was the case with the offensive line, SU is actively recruiting defensive linemen out of the portal.
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Previewing Syracuse’s Specialists for 2022
Babers’ offseason maneuvering also included the hiring of Bob Ligashesky as special teams coordinator. After five years as the top unit in the program, SU’s special teams plummeted without a lead coach last fall. Now the 36-year veteran, who has split his time between college and the pros, is working to revitalize the confidence of former Lou Groza Award-winning kicker Andre Szmyt while coaching up the team’s two scholarship punters.
SU returns its top return men in Trebor Pena and Courtney Jackson, both of whom have found the end zone as specialists, as well as top long snapper Aaron Bolinsky.
Syracuse has some of its best talent under Babers — a group headlined by Tucker, but one that also includes Jones, Williams and All-ACC left tackle Matthew Bergeron. The question is whether a new group of coaches can lift up the weak links on each side of the ball to give the team a chance to go bowling for the first time since 2018.
And that challenge is made steeper by the schedule. SU could be favored in only a couple of games, and a roster implosion is easy to imagine following the NC State-Clemson-Notre Dame-Pittsburgh run that starts in Week 7.
It all shapes up as a fascinating season for Syracuse, with Babers looking to meet the on-field expectations set by athletic director John Wildhack.