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2009 Syracuse Preview - Offense
Syracuse C Jim McKenzie
Syracuse C Jim McKenzie
Posted Jul 1, 2009 2009 Preview - Syracuse Orange Offense

Syracuse Orange

Preview 2009
- Offense

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2007 SU Preview | 2006 SU Preview 

What you need to know: It’s been a little over a decade since Donovan McNabb left the Carrier Dome. To Syracuse fans, it feels more like a century. The program hasn’t had a competent quarterback since, parading out a sea of mediocrity that includes names, like Perry Patterson, Troy Nunes, and R.J. Anderson. The new face looking to change the trend of futility is redshirt freshman Ryan Nassib, who was installed as the favorite during spring. While no one is expecting a McNabb reincarnation, new coordinator Rob Spence will ask his quarterback to make a lot more plays than his predecessors. Of course, Nassib will face more competition in the summer from a pair of seniors, incumbent Cameron Dantley and former Duke point guard Greg Paulus. Whoever gets the ball can take comfort in the return of WR Mike Williams, one of the Big East’s best, who sat out the 2008 season. Progress by the league’s worst offense will also require improved blocking from a young and beleaguered offensive line.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Cameron Dantley
121-251, 1,298 yds, 11 TD, 5 INT
Rushing: Doug Hogue
35 carries, 232 yds, 2 TD
Receiving: Donte Davis
29 catches, 312 yds, 2 TD

Star of the offense: Junior WR Mike Williams
Player who has to step up and become a star: Redshirt freshman QB Ryan Nassib
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore RB Antwon Bailey
Best pro prospect: Williams
Top three all-star candidates: 1)Williams, TE Mike Owen, 3) C Jim McKenzie
Strength of the offense: Running Game, Receivers
Weakness of the offense: Quarterback Efficiency, Pass Protection


Projected Starter: With a new staff often come some surprises in the depth chart. Witness 6-3, 216-pound redshirt freshman Ryan Nassib, who went from a third-stringer before spring to the top of the heap before the 15-practice session had concluded. Naturally, a lack of experience will be an issue if he holds on to the job, but the staff has been impressed with his poise, fundamentals, and grasp of the offense. He moves well in the pocket, has a quick release, and throws with accuracy. His rapid rise pushed a pair of veterans to tight end, so obviously the staff sees something.   

Projected Top Reserves: Lurking just behind Nassib is last year’s starter, 6-1, 218-pound senior Cameron Dantley. A former walk-on, who’s done far more than anyone expected, he’s the most experienced contender, but has limited upside as a reliable pocket passer. A nimble athlete, with a strong arm, he went just 121-of-251 for 1,298 yards, 11 touchdowns, and five picks. His best value to the Orange is as a veteran coming off the bench.

Arguably the most intriguing No. 3 quarterback this summer will be 6-1, 185-pound senior Greg Paulus. Yup, that’s the same Paulus, who spent the last four years as a point guard with the Duke basketball team. With a year of eligibility remaining, he’s returning close to home and trying to recapture the form that made him a Gatorade National High School Player of the Year. He’s taking this venture seriously, spending time in June watching Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints run through drills.   

Watch Out For… Doug Marrone to go with whoever gives him the best chance to win. Sounds obvious, right? The new head coach has made it clear that he’s not rebuilding and plans to go with the guy who’s most ready to produce. In other words, being a senior or a freshman is neither an edge nor a disadvantage.
Strength: Poise. Yeah, the leader in the clubhouse is a second-year freshman, but his two closest competitors are seniors, who’ve played in front of a bunch of large audiences. While that means arenas and field houses for Paulus, he’s still going to bring a veteran presence to the roster.
Weakness: Proven passers. The Orange was 113th nationally in passing efficiency for a reason last year. The stable of quarterbacks aren’t particularly talented. Dantley had a big hand in those paltry numbers. Nassib has proven nothing outside of the practice field. And Paulus hasn’t lined up behind center in more than four years. That’s not exactly a recipe for a turnaround.
Outlook: This ought to be a very compelling race in the summer. While Marrone wants his first team to be competitive, he’d also like to put his stamp on the program. Unless Paulus winds up being head-and-shoulders better, Nassib will be tough to beat. All things being relatively equal, it makes more sense to get the freshmen reps in the system instead of a kid, who’ll be out of eligibility in six months.
Rating: 5.5

Running Backs

Projected Starters: Much like the situation at quarterback, the new looks ready to go unconventional in its choice to replace 1,000-yard rusher Curtis Brinkley. A backup in March, 5-8, 196-pound sophomore Antwon Bailey has risen to the top of the depth chart. He provided a spark late in his rookie season, especially in the upset of Notre Dame, finishing with 221 yards and two scores on 33 carries. A tough, lightning-quick runner, he uses his diminutive stature as a weapon, hiding behind blockers and gaining leverage on would-be tacklers.

Not only is Brinkley gone, but so is his talented lead blocker Tony Fiammetta, now a member of the Carolina Panthers. Taking over for him at fullback will be 6-0, 240-pound senior, a blue-collar product of Cayuga (NY) Community College. He failed to get on the field in his first season, learning instead on the scout team.

Projected Top Reserves: The man Bailey is edging out at this point is 5-10, 214-pound junior Delone Carter, a former budding star before dislocating his hip and sitting out the entire 2007 season. He returned last fall, but didn’t have the same pop, managing just 23 carries for 137 yards. The hope is that he can recapture the combination of power and speed that helped him earn Mr. Ohio Football in 2005 and rush for  713 yards and four scores in 2006.

Running a close third is 5-10, 200-pound redshirt freshman Averin Collier, one of the school’s choice recruits of the 2008 class. A tough, physical runner, with a little shake-and-bake, his development was hampered by a small fracture in his left foot, which kept him from avoiding the year off. Healthy again, he’s determined to get right back in the mix.

Watch Out For… all three of the top backs to get a crack at snaps this season. The coaching staff plans to use Bailey and Carter, in particular, even looking to get the two on the field at the same time. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if, unlike last season, more than one back logs at least 100 carries.
Strength: Between-the-tackles runners. Bailey, Carter, and Collier all have the motors and strong lower bodies to pick up yards after contact and churn through arm tackles. If they can ever get more support from the blockers, this trio will be dynamite in short yardage situations.
Weakness: Playmakers. Bailey has some flash, but will it be enough to strike fear into opposing defenses? Last season’s two biggest runs came from Doug Hogue and Fiammetta, respectively. The latter is now in the NFL and the former is playing linebacker. On this team, you’ve got to be able to make your own yards and provide your own electricity.
Outlook: In Bailey and Collier, the Orange has a couple of young runners that an offense can be built around for the next two or three years. If they can make a quantum leap from a year ago and Carter recaptures some of his 2006 form, Syracuse will have the starting ingredients of a decent ground game.
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters: While the Orange has had plenty of offseason defections, there was one noteworthy return that’ll have a huge impact on the offense. Junior Mike Williams is back in Upstate New York after spending last season taking classes at Springfield (Mass.) Technical Community College. One of the Big East’s premier receivers, he carries into the season a nine-game streak with a touchdown catch, longest among active players. When last seen, he was making 60 grabs for 837 yards and 10 touchdowns, using his 6-2, 204-pound frame and good hops to get position on defenders. 

While Williams will be the “X” receiver, 6-0, 184-pound sophomore Marcus Sales has been elevated to the top of the depth chart at “Z”. One of the team’s top recruits from 2008, he’s a fluid, lanky receiver, with the big hands to pluck the ball out of the air. He caught 14 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown last season, setting the stage for a productive career.

When the Orange goes to three-wide sets, 6-0, 173-pound junior Donte Davis will be the primary guy out of the slot or “A” receiver. Last year’s leading pass-catcher with 29 grabs for 312 yards and two touchdowns, he’s one of the fastest players on the team and fundamentally sound, combining soft hands with tight route-running.

Former linebacker Mike Owen has carved out a nice career as a tight end the last two seasons. A powerful 6-4, 251-pound senior, he’ll support the run game as a blocker and provide a safety valve to the quarterbacks. As an 11-game starter last year, he finished second on the team with 19 receptions for 175 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Projected Top Reserves: Battling Sales for playing time at “Z” will be 6-1, 185-pound junior Da’Mon Merkerson, who shifted from “A” in the spring. Bouncing between cornerback and wide receiver since arriving, he’s had a hard time gaining a foothold at either position. A year ago, the versatile playmaker had 15 tackles on defense and six catches for 95 yards and a score on offense.

Merkerson’s relo opened a spot for 6-1, 165-pound sophomore Van Chew to move into the No. 2 spot in the slot behind Davis. A silky smooth athlete, with the size to play above defensive backs, he’ll need to add weight in order to avoid getting jammed and stood up at the line of scrimmage. One of eight true freshmen to play a year ago, he contributed on special teams and caught four passes for 56 yards and a score.

The Orange’s version of an H-back will be handled by 6-4, 232-pound sophomore Nick Provo. While his size will prevent him from being a prototypical tight end, he has the hands and the quickness to develop into a valuable weapon in the passing game in the new offense.

Watch Out For… the tight end option. Does such a play exist? It might after the Orange shifted a pair of quarterbacks, senior Andrew Robinson and sophomore Cody Catalina to tight end before the start of spring practice. Both have decent size, and in the case of Catalina, enough athletic ability to be slotted just behind Provo at “U” receiver.
Strength: Williams. His absence was painfully apparent last season. Now that he’s back with the program, the Orange once again has a go-to receiver, who’ll open up the field for the other receivers. He’s got a knack for making everyone better, including whichever quarterback gets the nod for the opener.
Weakness: Proven wideouts other than Williams. If opposing defenses double No. 1, is there anyone who’ll make them pay for that strategy? Davis is good, but has yet to look like a gamebreaker. And while Sales , Merkerson, and Chew have considerable upside, all three still have a lot to prove this fall.
Outlook: Occasionally, one player can make all the difference to a unit. Assuming he can shake off a little rust, Williams is one of those players, able to put up numbers despite getting questionable help from his quarterbacks. He’s a given, but for the corps to go from decent to dangerous, it needs someone else to step up and produce.                             
Rating: 7

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: Oh, the humanity. Maybe more than any other position this decade, the offensive line has been responsible for the Syracuse swoon. It hasn’t been BCS conference-worthy for years, and this year should be no different. While there’s no star power or sure-fire all-leaguers, 6-4, 286-pound junior Jim McKenzie does provide some of the most stability and reliability at the pivot. A two-year starter and arguably the smartest player on the team, he does a good job of calling out signals and directing the rest of his teammates. With a couple more like McKenzie, this would be a very different unit.

To the left of McKenzie at guard will be 6-3, 290-pound junior Ryan Bartholomew, who started all 10 of the games he played last season. A physical blocker, with heavy hands, he was one of the reasons the Orange was able to produce a 1,000-yard rusher in 2008. He’s also the strongest of the offensive linemen, consistently producing the best weight room numbers in the offseason.

The favorite at right guard coming out of spring was 6-6, 303-pound junior Adam Rosner, who was a second team left guard when the 15-practice session began. An important recruit for the program in 2006, he hasn’t quite panned out yet, failing to crack the starting lineup. He’s got the right size and strength, and now it looks as if he’ll get the opportunity as well.

The veteran among the tackles is 6-5, 307-pound junior Tucker Baumbach, a starter in every game last season. Yes, he’s still very raw in his technique, but just halfway through his career, he’s shown the potential to be the school’s best pass protector. An improved conditioning program has helped his footwork, and he has the long arms needed to seal off edge rushers.

The least experienced—and most scrutinized—of the offensive linemen will be 6-5, 307-pound redshirt freshman Nick Speller. He sure looks the part and has the staff excited about his future, but he’s also going to get schooled at times by some of the Big East’s best pass rushers. After getting a little bigger and a lot wiser in his first season on campus, he’s poised to lift the lid on a promising career.

Projected Top Reserves: In the event that Speller isn’t ready, 6-5, 305-pound junior Jonathan Meldrum will be there to provide an insurance policy. A two-time letterwinner, he’s played in 19 career games on offense and special teams. The favorite to win the job become camp opened, he failed to hold on and could have trouble mounting a challenge in the summer.

Sophomore Nick Lepak brings experience, versatility, and power to the second unit. The 6-4, 318-pounder played in nine games as a true freshman, starting a pair of games at tackle. This season, he started as a guard, but has since moved behind McKenzie at center, meaning he can basically play anywhere on the line.b style="mso-bidi-font-weight: normal">

Watch Out For… the newcomers. Like it or not, the Orange must elevate some true freshmen into the two-deep once they arrive, signs of serious depth issues. Coming out of spring, it didn’t have a single returning player at guard beyond the starters, creating opportunities for guys, like 6-4, 275-pound rookie Justin Pugh.
Strength: Run blocking. Much-maligned before the season began, this group did a better than expected job of opening holes for Curtis Brinkley and the rest of the backs. The Orange finished a respectable 55th nationally on the ground, its best output running the ball in years.
Weakness: Pass protection. While the Orange stepped up in run blocking, it remained AWL in pass protection, once again allowing a whopping number of sacks. The unit might be a little tighter on the interior, but with a rookie at left tackle, it’s still going to be vulnerable to edge rushers.  
Outlook: Sure, there were baby steps a year ago, but this remains a questionable offensive line that’s going to get paddled by quality front fours. Plus, the Orange better hope that there are no injuries because the second team figures to be a ragtag bunch with precious little experience. 
Rating: 5.5