We’re still clawing our way towards the regular season that we’re hoping and begging will take place. As we get closer we’re talking to bloggers for teams on Clemson’s schedule. In this installment, we spoke with John Cassillo from Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician. You can follow John at @JohnCassillo on Twitter. Enjoy the Q&A!
Syracuse had an interesting coaching carousel at coordinator this offseason. Can you explain what went down and where it leaves them now?
As you guys may have noticed, Syracuse struggled on both sides of the ball last year. A year after seemingly having a breakout season on defense, Brian Ward’s group was getting torched most weeks. The Boston College game (a 58-27 loss) was enough to end his tenure running the D. Offensively, Mike Lynch was clearly struggling in year two without Sean Lewis as his co-pilot. Add in no Eric Dungey and a line getting mauled, and the results just weren’t there to keep him in the OC role anymore.
Ward was let go following the BC game, while Lynch takes on running backs (which he’s handled before). In Ward’s place is former Arizona State defensive coordinator Tony White, whose 3-3-5 scheme could be the help SU’s looking for. White only coached one game at DC for the Sun Devils (last year’s Sun Bowl), but he comes from the Rocky Long three and has been part of some impressive results there.
The offense will be a reunion for Dino Babers and Sterlin Gilbert, his former offensive coordinator at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green. Gilbert’s results at Texas and USF were far from glowing. But given the high-powered offenses these two have helmed together before, I’m optimistic we see a return to the scoring ability Syracuse displayed for much of Dino’s first three seasons on campus.
It’s worth noting that SU is also trying to emphasize the DMV area more for recruiting, which spurred part of the move to bring in Chip West (Marshall) to coach cornerbacks, replacing long-time Babers assistant Kim McCloud. West also spent six seasons with Virginia, so hoping we see an uptick in recruiting in that region this cycle.
Coach Dino Babers is often lauded by the media and highlighted as one of the strong coaches in the ACC. Syracuse had an impressive 2018 season, but his other three seasons failed to deliver winning records and combine for a paltry 13-23 record. Has perception of him and the job he has done dimmed or are you still optimistic about the future with Coach Babers?
I’m personally still very optimistic about Babers and the direction of this program. The talent level’s been upgraded since his arrival and at least part of losing records in previous years can be attributed to injury and/or poor offensive line play. Other Syracuse fans are a little less high on things following 2019’s 5-7 faceplant. But I do think if you can get SU to a 10-3 record in a season, you’re obviously good at what you do.
All of that said, there’s a lot of pressure on this year — something even Babers seems aware of given the coaching staff shake-ups this off-season. Granted, we don’t even know if there will be bowls come December. But 6-6 is probably the bar to clear for Orange supporters to feel good heading into year six. That won’t be easy given what we replace on defense (most of the line, all of the linebackers, two starting DBs). There’s a path to get there, though.
Tommy DeVito was one of the most hyped QBs in the ACC entering last season. He didn’t completely flop, but he and the rest of the offense certainly disappointed. What do the re-calibrated expectations for the offensive look like this season?
Gilbert’s arrival should help fuel some optimism, but the real positive outlook comes from how the offensive line seemed vastly improved over the final few games of the season. Ryan Alexander seemed to be the weak link, and the line getting chewed up led to DeVito getting knocked around a lot and also failing to go through his progressions. His mid-season departure spurred changes that seemed to pay dividends — Airon Servais swung out to left tackle, Matthew Bergeron took on the right tackle role, and Carlos Vettorello became the new starting center.
Over the final three games of the season, SU went 2-1 while scoring 49, 34, and 39 points respectively (though the defense contributed some of those too). Compared to the season average of 28.3 points per game, though, something was clearly clicking better. And DeVito (along with backup Clayton Welch) didn’t find himself on the turf as much. If that continues, it could be a fun season on offense. But Syracuse fans seem anxious to see something more from DeVito than just reasonably good counting stats.
Syracuse’s only Power 5 non-conference opponent this season will be (at) Rutgers. Colgate, (at) Western Michigan, and Liberty round out their non-conference schedule. Syracuse has appeared in just one bowl game from 2014-2019, so this may make sense. Do you like the light scheduling or would you prefer them schedule more interesting opponents? Do you expect a 4-0 non-conference performance?
Both TNIAAM and I have staked out a corner of Syracuse fandom and media that wants the easiest scheduling possible until we become a consistent bowl team again. There’s a time and a place to challenge yourself. When you’re struggling to make a bowl more than once every four or five seasons isn’t it.
Given the Notre Dame deal that puts the Irish on the schedule every three years or so, I think our current approach works for now. Fans may not like it as much as facing a bunch of non-conference Power Five foes, but they also don’t like losing. Winning allows us to do the former and not get pasted every time like we did most years from 2005-2017.
If Syracuse doesn’t go 4-0 in non-conference play this season I’m going to be getting a lot of contrarian comments in my general direction. So, if you’re going to schedule easier games, yeah, definitely have to go unbeaten in those contests.
Unfortunately, it’s been a challenging off-season, especially for those in New York and the tri-state area with regards to COVID-19. Syracuse obviously has a lot of connection to New York City even though they’re a few hours away. They are also the only team in the ACC that plays indoors. Given those factors, do you think Syracuse could have more onerous restrictions around their football season than other ACC teams?
At one point, I did. However, the tri-state area is actually faring better than most right now as coronavirus cases seem to be surging around the country following reopenings. Think there are a lot of real questions about whether the season can even happen as scheduled, though, even before dealing with SU’s additional hurdle of playing indoors. Given current trends, I’m not overly hopeful we’ll see a 12-game schedule that runs September through November for anyone — let alone ‘Cuse.
Where I think Syracuse’s job gets harder is on the recruiting front. Without the opportunity to talk to Babers in person, I think that hurts our chances with blue-chip players (where we obviously struggled already). With less talent in the nearby area too, it’s also not as easy to have target prospects just “drop by.”