The Orange are coming off a disappointing 2019 year as they head into the season opener against North Carolina on Sept. 12. Syracuse is currently “behind” in preparation for its season opener due to the coronavirus, and head coach Dino Babers is still unsure about which of his players will opt-out of the fall season.
Before the season kicks off, our beat writers discussed pressing questions about Syracuse football and the 2020 season.
1. The offensive line struggled throughout all of last season — only two NCAA teams (Old Dominion and Akron) allowed more sacks than Syracuse’s 50. Do you see that position being a concern again for the Orange in 2020?
Anthony Dabbundo: I’m more bullish on the Syracuse offensive line than most people, even if it may not look great in the first few weeks of the season. Babers hinted on Monday that there are injuries currently, but at full health, the returning continuity is really important and underrated. I’m expecting offensive line play to be significantly worse across the conferences still playing football in 2020, and there are reasons to be optimistic that a line returning four starters could make a leap and be average in the ACC in 2020 after last season’s struggles. The success of the line could hinge on the status of Florida transfer Chris Bleich, who is still waiting to learn if he’s eligible to play in 2020. My concerns with the 2020 SU offense lie elsewhere.
Danny Emerman: It’s a concern, for sure. Syracuse had the fifth worst sack rate (12%) out of all 130 FBS programs last year, according to Football Outsiders. They were banged up, overtaxed and playing out of position practically all year, leaving quarterback Tommy DeVito running for his life. And though the only place for the O-line to go is up, Babers has already cast concern over this year’s group. When asked about the unit on Monday, Babers hinted that the group already has some injuries and might not be at full strength until late September or early October. Add Bleich’s still pending eligibility ruling, and a huge improvement looks even less likely. They’ll be better, but a negligible boost won’t do much.
Adam Hillman: I’m not sure how the offensive line can be much worse. The unit allowed 24 sacks over a three-game stretch and became the scapegoat loss after loss. I do expect the offensive line to improve, but that’s not saying much. Carlos Vettorello will continue to snap the ball to DeVito, as he did late in the season, and Airon Servais can return to his natural position at left tackle. If Bleich is cleared in time, that’s a huge boost to the interior part of the line. But to me, the biggest factor is Matthew Bergeron. The Quebec native stepped in late in the season and helped anchor the right side of the line. He wasn’t fantastic, but the offensive line stopped allowing defenders to pass right through. SU only allowed five sacks over its last three games of the season. I expect the late 2019 version of the offensive line to show up in 2020.
2. Syracuse lost Trishton Jackson, its No. 1 receiver from last season, to the NFL. Is Taj Harris capable of becoming DeVito’s top wideout or will that belong to someone else?
A.D.: Harris has to be the Orange’s number one option at receiver, and he has to prove he can consistently perform in that role. Expecting him to match the production of Jamal Custis or Jackson from years past may be a big ask, but he has to be more than a deep threat in 2020. SU isn’t an explosive offense and has never relied on offensive explosiveness to be successful under Babers. The receivers who thrive most in the system have created separation both off the line of scrimmage and at the top of their intermediate-range routes. Harris has proven he can be a deep threat — averaging 15.1 yards per reception and catching a 94-yard touchdown against Pittsburgh — and now he has to prove he can create separation and have reliable hands.
D.E.: Back in the spring, DeVito gave no clues as to which receiver might become the No. 1 option. Granted, the team hadn’t even put the pads on yet, but DeVito said March 8 that he’s “looking forward to (seeing) who steps up.” For the past four seasons, Syracuse’s up-tempo offense has led to at least one receiver topping 900 yards. That streak will almost certainly end this year. It’s impossible to say anything definitive about Harris without getting a glimpse of him either in the spring or during training camp, but he said in March that he’s trying to put on weight, something that’s given him trouble at SU.
A.H.: Harris seems to be the most-likely answer to that question. He’s lightning fast and was DeVito’s clear No. 2 option last year. I’m just not sold on him. He’s had big games, including touchdowns against Pittsburgh and Holy Cross. But I’m not confident Harris can be a high-volume receiver in the ACC at 164 pounds. That being said, I don’t know who else steps into that role. Senior Nykeim Johnson makes the most sense as an alternative. He topped 500 yards in 2018 but only caught 19 passes last year. Other than that, Ed Hendrix missed his first two seasons with knee injuries, and no one else at the position except Sharod Johnson has caught more than one pass. I’d bet on Harris, but I wouldn’t count out Nykeim Johnson.
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3. Who’s one under-the-radar player to watch this season that might step into a larger role?
A.D.: Because SU doesn’t have a true, established No. 1 wide receiver, my under-the-radar player is tight end Aaron Hackett. The Orange had plenty of success in 2019 targeting tight ends, including Hackett and Luke Benson. Hackett caught 23 passes for 205 yards and six touchdowns last year, but he’ll need to be a bigger threat outside of the red zone in 2020 if SU wants to be more successful offensively. SU’s biggest struggles came on first down, and Hackett could be a key option underneath for DeVito to stay upright, avoid sacks and keep the Orange ahead of the chains. If they want to prevent 3rd-and-longs, which killed SU’s offense in 2019, Hackett could be the key to doing so.
D.E.: Not sure if he’s under the radar, but by the nature of his position, many fans might not think of Bergeron when asked this question. If Syracuse is to drastically improve its offensive line, he’ll be key. As a freshman, Bergeron started five games in the second half of the season due to injuries, becoming the first true freshman to start at tackle for the Orange since 2002. If he can build on his Pro Football Focus Freshman All-American season, the whole offense will benefit.
A.H.: Mikel Jones is my pick. The Florida-native struggled as a freshman, often exposed dissecting both the run and the pass game, especially against Maryland. But he was 18 years old. The former four-star recruit got better as the season went on — he impressed with a 10-tackle performance against Wake Forest — and ended with 38 total tackles. Lakiem Williams and Andrew Armstrong are gone, and there are three open linebacker spots. Don’t be surprised if Jones is one of them Sept. 12.
4. There’s so much uncertainty about whether the 2020 season will happen in the fall, spring or get canceled altogether. If Syracuse ends up playing its current schedule, what’s the Orange’s biggest strength and weakness heading into the season?
A.D.: Syracuse’s biggest strength has to be its secondary. The Orange return Andre Cisco, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Trill Williams and Eric Coley to what was already SU’s most-talented unit in 2019. Cisco is an NFL talent and a preseason All-American, Trill Williams is a dynamic playmaker who will probably be split out wide at corner next year and Melifonwu has the 6-foot-3 length to be an effective press corner. The main question is whether SU will generate enough pass rush to make the job of the secondary easier.
The Orange’s biggest weakness entering the 2020 season is their implementation of two new systems both on offense and defense. SU is replacing both coordinators and changing its defensive scheme after they had no spring ball or offseason. Every college football team has dealt with the same lack of preparation for the upcoming season, but not every team is replacing both coordinators and ranks near the bottom of the ACC in returning production on offense. I’m concerned about how in-sync SU’s new running backs and receivers will be with Sterlin Gilbert’s offensive system.
D.E.: There’s no question Syracuse’s strength is its secondary. Cisco, a First Team AP Preseason All-American, compared Trill Williams to Deion Sanders in a Tuesday press conference. Cisco’s also the third-ranked safety in all of college football, per PFF, and leads a group that held offenses to under 300 passing yards for seven of SU’s final eight games in 2019.
Naturally, the weakest offensive unit is the wide receiving corp — the secondary’s counterpart. Harris is the closest thing SU has to a proven wideout, and he probably tops out as a jitterbug, underneath option with limited ability to take the top off the defense. Cameron Jordan, an expected contributor to the passing game, left the program this summer. Nykiem Johnson, Hendrix and Courtney Jackson are all huge question marks. Them lining up against SU’s secondary in scrimmages can’t be pretty.
A.H.: SU’s secondary has NFL potential. Cisco is the best player on this roster, and he’ll be playing on Sundays next year. He led the nation in interceptions as a true freshman and was still an All-ACC second team selection, despite an injury-riddled sophomore year. Beside him is Trill Williams, who forced three fumbles last season, and Melifonwu. Only two quarterbacks topped 300 yards passing against this group when all three were active last year: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman.
As for the other side of the ball, I’m not impressed by this group of running backs. Abdul Adams is the marquee name, but he failed to live up to the hype in 2019. He averaged only 3.9 yards per carry and ran for 336 yards on the season. Syracuse relied on Moe Neal down the stretch, as he carried the ball 57 times during the last three games of his career. Jarveon Howard is more of a short-yardage, power back. Jawhar Jordan is exciting and athletic but raw. An improved offensive line will certainly help SU gain yards on the ground, but I don’t see the typical bellcow back that Babers likes to rely on.
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