I caught up this week with John Cassillo, who is the managing editor over at Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, to talk about Syracuse and the crazy amount of misfortune that the program has endured in 2020. It’s been a lot!
1. Syracuse has been hit about as hard as anybody by attrition this season, whether that’s injuries or opt-outs — will you give us a rundown of the contributors that the Orange are missing?
Yeah, it’s been pretty brutal. Best way to break it down is offense and defense, with some notes:
QB: Tommy DeVito, JaCobigan Morgan (maybe out this week)
RB: Abdul Adams, Jarveon Howard, Jawhar Jordan
FB: Chris Elmore (now starting at LG)
OL: Pat Davis, Chris Bleich (Florida transfer, waiver denied), Anthony Red, Qadir White, Wil Froumy
I added Bleich above because SU was really banking on him to help the interior line issues, and notably, Dakota Davis only recently returned from injury at right guard. Along with the three running backs mentioned, Garrison Johnson also transferred out before the season.
LB: Tyrell Richards (in and out of lineup)
DB: Andre Cisco, Trill Williams, Eric Coley, Neil Nunn, Cam Jonas
Somehow, despite the absences in the secondary, the defensive backs remain Syracuse’s biggest strength. But we’d obviously be a whole lot better if three of five starters (Cisco, Trill, Coley) were on the field.
On both sides of the ball, the absences have stretched the Orange incredibly thin and forced a lot of freshmen into action. The struggles have just been far more apparent on offense due to the number of O-line absences and play-calling ineptitude from OC Sterlin Gilbert.
2. One thing that’s tough about this dumb season is fairly evaluating coaching performance under the circumstances. How much does the coronavirus factor into how you judge Dino Babers this year? Does he get a free pass because so much is outside of his control?
For me, it factors in quite a bit in. COVID took a manageable schedule and turned it on its head. It cut down on practice time, forced opt-outs and stopped SU from properly implementing a new offense (well sort of new, anyway) to the extent the team needed to. For a coach that won 10 games just two seasons ago, he’s gained some leeway from me — though not so much from the wider fan base.
All of that said, likely cruising toward a 1-10 season can’t be completely excused. A lot of teams changed coaches and have dealt with absences this year, yet have come out of it looking a whole lot better. This season’s issues have laid bare just how much depth remains a problem for this squad and how alarmingly poor the strength and conditioning is. So he gets another year, but this offseason likely leads to changes somewhere on the staff, even if it’s just a S&C staff overhaul and maybe moving on from Gilbert after just one season at ‘Cuse. Next year’s bowl or bust, however.
3. What’s a bright spot or two that you’ve been able to find this year?
Alluded to the defensive backs playing well above, but they’ve really been a highlight this season. Despite not having three of five starters, corners Ifeatu Melifonwu and Garrett Williams have been some of the best cover men in the conference this year. Both are likely headed to the NFL in the next couple years and it’s been rewarding to see their talent on display even amid a terrible season with little help around them.
True freshman running back Sean Tucker’s emergence has also been great to watch. While the offensive play-calling has been miserable, his abilities have wowed just the same. He’s averaging over five yards per carry despite a bad offensive line, and most Orange fans are looking forward to seeing what he rounds into.
4. Who should we expect to see at quarterback this weekend?
JaCobian Morgan’s injury looked pretty serious at first vs. Louisville, so I wouldn’t bank on seeing him starting this game. Chances are Rex Culpepper gets the start. He’s not necessarily accurate but probably knows the offense best, too. Freshman Dillon Markiewicz also hopefully sees some time out there to help develop more experienced depth at QB.
5. It helped during NC State’s miserable 2019 season to know that at least some younger guys were getting experience that they might not have gotten otherwise. Do you think the same thing can pay off for Syracuse down the road, or are the Orange so far down the depth chart that these guys aren’t likely contributors no matter how much experience they get in 2020?
I’ve mentioned a lot of freshmen above, and hopefully in these final couple games, we see even more. Though freshmen have seen the field plenty under Dino Babers, depth development seems to have been a problem. The hope is that this season does help fix some of those issues going forward, while also identifying future starters. Of course, none of this matters if play-calling is as bad as what we’ve seen for the last two years.
6. What’s the most feasible path to victory for Syracuse in this game?
SU has to hope the recent improvements in the run defense continue and that they force Bailey Hockman to try to do too much in the passing game. The only numbers that look good on paper for the Orange this year are turnovers, so the more of those they can force, the better off they are. Syracuse still probably needs one or two of those picks/fumble recoveries returned for touchdowns, however, to even start considering an upset. And even then, the offense still needs to show up in a way we haven’t really seen lately.