‘Cuse Countdown 2018 Football Preview: Offense
With just four days until the start of the Syracuse football season, our ‘Cuse Countdown analysts begin their look at the 2018 Orange. We begin with the offense, which has been known for its speed, but also its inconsistency. Analysts Gill Gross and Jenna Fink break down the unit by position as it starts the 2018 season.
Quarterbacks and Offensive Line – Gill Gross
Let’s start with the backup. That’s not how positional previews usually go, but for Syracuse it feels uniquely appropriate. In Dino Babers’ first two seasons, the Orange was 4-4, lightning struck starting quarterback Eric Dungey, and Syracuse lost its remaining four games. SU fans grimaced as backup quarterbacks Zack Mahoney and Rex Culpepper failed to lead the Orange to a single victory following Dungey’s pre-November injuries.
Any assertion that the Oregon product can’t complete his senior year healthy is unfounded. Still, the most important thing that happened to Syracuse quarterbacks in 2017 is the addition of a new backup. Tommy DeVito is the highest rated quarterback recruit since Donovan McNabb, a Nike Football Elite 11’s Finalist, and an Under Armour All-American. He came to campus last year with four-star ratings from ESPN and 247Sports.com. Head Coach Dino Babers exercised patience by redshirting DeVito last year. Now he’ll act as an essential safety blanket for SU’s offense. If Dungey goes down, it won’t spell disaster for the Orange. That’s huge.
As for Dungey, the rising senior is confident he can finish the season and keep DeVito on the sidelines. Dungey says that added bodyweight will help him sustain more hits without injury. He played at 205 pounds as a sophomore, 218 pounds as a junior, and now claims to be a hefty 232 pounds going into this season. He feels stronger than ever and he’s talking a big game. “I’m looking to shock the world,” he said at a spring ball press conference. To succeed in that, he’ll need to raise his passing efficiency this season. Dungey finished 10th in the ACC in passer rating as a junior after finishing eighth in his first two seasons. One thing you can count on is Dungey’s legs. With Lamar Jackson out of the conference, look for Dungey to challenge as the ACC’s leading rushing quarterback.
Offensive line hype is an oxymoron. But the position group that always goes under the radar has managed to generate some buzz in Central New York by doing what hasn’t been done in 30 years. For the first time since 1989, Syracuse returns all five starting offensive lineman, according to SU Athletics.
Two seniors, Cody Conway and Aaron Roberts, will be protecting Eric Dungey’s blind side. Conway has been a rock at left tackle for three straight seasons starting for the Orange. He’s been selected to three separate preseason All-ACC teams for this upcoming season. Lining up on his inside will likely be Roberts, who fell victim to a season-ending injury last summer. He is technically in a competition with Sam Heckel who filled his position last season, but Roberts led the Orange in snaps (968) and pancake blocks (39) in 2016. If his knee has made a full recovery, he’ll win that competition. Syracuse is looking at two studs on the left side.
On the right side, SU receives an injection of new talent in Texas A&M graduate-transfer Koda Martin. Babers and Dungey alike beamed about Martin at the ACC Kickoff Press Conference. When asked about the O-Line in general, Dungey only called out one athlete by name, calling Martin a “great addition.”
Right guard Evan Adams and center Airon Servais round off the line. Both are coming off solid full seasons. And if there are any injuries on the inside, including center, the versatile Heckel will be more than ready to fill the role.
How good is this offensive line? It’s hard to measure, but consider this. A sub-elite program like Syracuse will usually start a four-star recruit as a freshman. Qadir White, a four-star on 247Sports.com, is the Orange’s top recruit this season. But this front line is so experienced, he will be hard pressed to find a role. Look for the offensive line to be the strongest part of this football team.
Wide Receivers and Running Backs – Jenna Fink
With the loss of Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips, the most productive pass-catching duo in Syracuse history, the Orange loses 62 percent of its receptions from last year. One of the biggest questions entering the 2018 season is who will be Syracuse’s next “consistently good, not occasionally great” wide receiver. Between the veterans and newbies, there are several potential breakout stars:
Devin Butler is a returning starter and rightfully so. He finished third on the team in receptions last year with 327 yards and one touchdown. While Butler has some technical improvements to make, his natural athleticism and speed are stand out traits among a competitive wide receiver field.
In 2017, the Orange saw a preview of what’s to come from sophomore Nykeim Johnson. Last season, he had eight receptions for 68 yards. His biggest strength is his speed and he’s known for being a shifty runner. Johnson has also been compared to Erv Philips in size and ability. With his talent, Johnson can easily become a key asset for ‘Cuse in the slot.
As a redshirt senior, it’s Jamal Custis’ last chance for a breakout season. His career has been less than stellar so far; he battled several injuries and only played in eight games last season. Then again, Steve Ishmael didn’t reach his full potential until his final season of eligibility. The same could go for Custis. Moving from the outside to the slot could give Syracuse an advantage and give Custis the breakout year he’s looking for.
Despite an inconsistent 2017 season, junior Sean Riley had a few bright spots. He had a four-catch, 82-yard game against Central Michigan. He was also Syracuse’s starting punt returner. While he is a bigger asset on special teams, he could be a viable option in four receiver sets. Meanwhile, if any true freshman wide receiver sees playing time this season, it’s Ed Hendrix. Dino Babers typically doesn’t start freshman, but Hendrix has the talent. His speed and 6-foot-3 frame makes him arguably the strongest in his recruiting class.
Without a doubt, this season will be one of uncertainty at the wide receiver position. It’ll take time for receivers to adjust to Dino Babers’ offense, but don’t underestimate young receivers. With several possible breakout candidates, the number one receiver spot is anybody’s game.
As far as the ground game goes, it’s no secret quarterback Eric Dungey likes to run. He led Syracuse in rushing with 600 yards last season. As a dual-threat quarterback, Dungey’s run ability is an asset for SU’s ground attack. While he has put on weight to try to avoid injuries, there’s no guarantee the senior will play a full season. With a more experienced offensive line, Syracuse running backs need to elevate the ground game and take pressure off Eric Dungey.
For the past two years, Dontae Strickland has been the go-to guy. As a senior, Strickland is the most experienced running back. He has an incredible football IQ and is a great pass blocker. While he has a knack for the game, he lacks explosiveness. Strickland only averaged 3.8 yards per carry in 2017. He also missed two games due to injury, opening the door for junior Moe Neal.
Moe Neal was the Orange’s second-leading rusher while starting only three games last year. He is a more effective runner than Strickland, averaging 5.3 yards per carry in 2017. He also has the explosiveness Strickland lacks. He ran for 81 yards against Central Michigan and caught a 52-yard TD pass against Central Connecticut State.
Neal seems to better fit the mold of Dino Babers’ fast tempo offense, but Strickland’s pass block ability is unmatched by any other running back on the roster. Despite each players strengths, neither is the total package. While Strickland is currently listed as the number one guy, it’s likely the two will work by committee until one running back has a breakout game.