This week I caught up with John Cassillo, who is the managing editor of Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician. Find John’s answers to my questions below, and I’ve also answered some questions about NC State for John that will be up at NunesMagician.com.
BTP: So about that Maryland game ... was that a situation where you just toss the whole thing in the trash and forget about it, or was there something you could learn from it about the nature of this Syracuse team?
JC: The next few games should probably tell us whether it was just a weird confluence of events and Syracuse’s coaching staff got caught looking ahead to Clemson a little too much, or this team’s about to implode. Going into 2019, we knew the offensive line was a question mark and the linebackers were a bit green, and that game seemed to show both issues out in full force. Both groups haven’t necessarily gotten THAT much better since then, but have had their moments. So... TBD still, I guess.
BTP: How do y’all feel about the transition to Tommy DeVito this year? Is he playing up to expectations?
JC: On the one hand, the aforementioned offensive line issues have made it tough for him to get a lot of time to throw (obviously a big problem for a pocket passer). On the other, DeVito can force things here and there, and that’s happened a few times as he’s panicked a bit instead of stepping up into the pocket. Expectations around DeVito were probably a little too high going into the season. But for a first-time starter, I think he’s actually performed reasonably well given the circumstances. Eric Dungey’s a tough act to follow, and DeVito can still do a really great job under center without trying to be him.
BTP: Syracuse’s ground game hasn’t been as effective as it was last year--how much of that has to do with Eric Dungey’s departure? What else is going on there?
JC: Feel like this entire Q&A’s going to be about the offensive line, but that’s because it’s a major part of this year’s struggles as we replace three of five starters from last year and also suffered an injury to starting center Sam Heckel in week one and haven’t seen him since.
Having Dungey out there was a big part of last year’s rushing success, but Moe Neal still had almost 900 yards in 2018 and he’s looked good in spots this season. The fact that Dungey was settled within the offense helped the tempo stay up from day one (DeVito’s struggled there) and he did help keep opposing defenses off balance. Getting a better push inside from the line opened more holes the run through, though, and that’s what’s lacked most so far this year. Think fullback Chris Elmore’s presence has also started to telegraph runs a little too much in short-yardage situations, too. That’s not a knock on Elmore as much as it’s a knock on personnel management.
BTP: What do you like the most about Syracuse’s defense this year? And where has that group struggled?
JC: Syracuse can still generate a ton of pressure with the front four, just like last year -- and that’s without having the services of starting tackle McKinley Williams all season (he could potentially come back against NC State). Defensive ends Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson haven’t gotten as many opportunities against better competition without Williams drawing attention inside. That lack of serious pressure has also hurt the secondary, which benefited a ton from QBs not being able to go through their progressions.
Mentioned the linebackers a little above, but they remain the weak link for the time being, especially against the run. Last year, Syracuse’s linebackers didn’t really figure out how to stop the run until game seven against UNC. Hoping for our sake that they get there a game earlier this year against the Pack. Between Williams’s absence and the linebacker struggles, it’s been rough against FBS-level competition (while we’re middle-of-the-road in raw rushing yards allowed per game, the Orange have allowed 200-plus against Clemson, Maryland and Western Michigan, respectively). Maryland, in particular, abused us via play-action all day. Take what you will from that, given what I said about the loss to the Terps earlier.
BTP: Give us a couple of guys we should keep an eye on who might be a little under-the-radar.
JC: Dino Babers’s offenses have rarely used tight ends all that much as passing options, but Aaron Hackett’s actually gotten some burn for the Orange early on this year, with 12 catches for 101 yards and three scores. While he’s likely to get pulled into blocking a bunch, he’s very likely to play a safety valve role for DeVito -- especially on NC State’s side of the field.
Defensively, freshman linebacker Mikel Jones has been getting an increasing number of snaps when the Orange are in a 4-3 alignment (as opposed to the nickel you’ll see us in primarily). He has 15 tackles on the year, but has looked instinctual and quick when he’s out there and is a prime candidate for improvement as the year goes on.