This week I caught up with John Cassillo of Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician to talk Dino Babers and the Syracuse Orange. John’s answers to my questions are below. I answered some questions for John over here.
1.) This has been a pretty good bounce-back year for Syracuse, all things considered. How much do you think the team’s improvement has helped Dino Babers’ job security?
JC: I mean, I think Babers was back barring a winless season due to his buyout (still rumored to be pretty high until next year), but winning five games this year and staying competitive in most games does help his case. The biggest concern I have is whether what’s worked is actually sustainable for the Orange. It’s not like Sean Tucker magically stops being a a great running back. But the quality play was pretty reliant on Tucker teaming up with Garrett Shrader improvisation — something that I think some recent opponents have sniffed out at this point.
Really, you won’t find a ton of complaints from the fan base if he’s brought back at 6-6... or even 5-7 while hanging with NC State and Pitt to close the year. But if the last two go off the rails, it’s incredibly tough to defend one winning season in six tries.
2.) Early on in Babers’ tenure, Syracuse threw the ball a bunch and played fast and now they’re basically at the other end of the spectrum. Did the Orange bring in Garrett Shrader as part of a conscious decision to change course offensively and center things around the ground game, or did it take time to find that identity?
JC: You started to see a shift away from airing it out in 2019, when we discovered Eric Dungey was a larger part of the system’s success than we thought. Without an offensive line for most of 2019 or 2020, the offense had to adjust to a run-focused attack because a traditional pocket passer like (former starter) Tommy DeVito couldn’t hold his own with that much pressure constantly. Last season showed us the Orange had a great running back in the making in Tucker. But it took transitioning to Shrader, who’s really a running QB more than a dual-threat, to get here.
While this coaching staff struggled to design an effective offense around DeVito and line struggles, I think they’ve done a reasonable job quickly changing things for Shrader. They probably felt he was a more polished passer when they brought him in, and his numbers from Mississippi State would sort of indicate that was the case. But at this point, they have some key concepts down that have worked more often than not with Shrader and they’ll keep at it, hoping it works. As mentioned above, I think recent opponents have sniffed out the fact that much of this run-heavy offense is based on Shrader improv. But maybe I’m wrong there.
3.) And of course the nature of Syracuse’s attack has a whole lot to do with Sean Tucker, who it feels like gets way too little attention league-wide. What is it that makes him so good?
JC: Part of the problem for Tucker is that most of Syracuse’s games have been on either RSNs (who talk about us like we’re a non-conference team) or ACC Network (many times act like this is the first time they’ve heard the Orange were a member of the conference). But I digress...
Tucker excels at the point of contact, cuts really well and has a great combination of speed and strength that make him a tough running back to keep wrapped up for a full game. He follows blocks well, but also takes great angles as a ball-carrier, and in an offense more capable of throwing the ball, he’d be an even greater weapon there. Every year in college football, there a handful of running backs that you look at and know that they just have a unique ability to see the field and attack opposing defenses. Tucker’s definitely one fo those guys this year.
4.) Who are some under-the-radar guys we should keep an eye on?
JC: If Syracuse can actually move the ball through the air at all, Devaughn Cooper’s shown himself a capable target at times and seems to find himself open a lot. Defensively, Josh Black doesn’t put up numbers as bold as some of his counterparts like Cody Roscoe. But it usually spells good things for the Orange when he gets going and finds his way into opposing backfields.
5.) When Syracuse is struggling, what tends to be responsible?
JC: On offense, it’s predictability. Like I mentioned, beyond Tucker, we’ve excelled due in part to Shrader’s improvisational skills — and that includes passing the ball, when things are going well. If we’re going to be pretty one-dimensional, which has been the case for the last couple weeks, then NC State’s going to stack the box and that should be it for the Orange’s chances even if Tucker’s running relatively well.
6.) What’s the best-case scenario for Syracuse on Saturday?
JC: As much as I seem pretty down on things above, I still think a win is possible in this game. I’m not predicting one, mind you. But Syracuse has played close in every loss this season save last week, and I’d like to believe this defense is far better than what we saw on the field last week. Devin Leary lacking the mobility Malik Cunningham will be a relief and that should allow the Orange to blitz more. If they can get to Leary and avoid being so predictable on offense, they have a shot here to be in it ‘til the end.