We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week we’re chatting with John Cassillo, the managing editor over at Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician, SBN’s blog for the Syracuse Orange. We spent some time catching up since the Florida State Seminoles and the Orange did not play in 2020 due to COVID-19 scheduling.
TN: In your Q&A you asked me what my read on Syracuse post-2018 season is. It’s such an interesting question that I want to hear your perspective. After going 10-3 in 2018 Syracuse fell to 5-7 and then 1-10 last season, but are 3-1 this season. Also, how do Orange fans feel about Dino Babers?
TNIAAM: I think Babers and the fan base both underestimated how essential a healthy Eric Dungey was to 2018’s success, and a poor line exacerbated issues stemming from that absence en route to a lackluster 2019. Babers hired new coordinators on both offense and defense in response — which he deserves credit for after things clearly weren’t working in 2019 — but then 2020 happened. No one was happy about the 1-10 finish, obviously, yet some are willing to chalk things up to COVID and others aren’t. No matter which camp you were in to start the season, everyone seems to be of the same opinion that there’s simply no way to legitimize bringing this staff back if SU finishes with anything worse than a 5-7 record (and even 5-7 is probably pushing most fans’ patience).
People (self included) want Dino to succeed, but it becomes harder to defend keeping a coach around if he’s potentially looking at five losing seasons in six tries and hasn’t consistently upgraded incoming talent to make the on-field product significantly better.
TN: Before the season an article was written at Syracuse.com that stated that for Babers and quarterback Tommy DeVito this season was the culmination of five years of trust. That for their loyalty to each other, they had one final season to prove what brought and kept them together. This is coming off of last season where DeVito was lost for the season to injury. Yet last week when Syracuse beat Liberty 24-21 Garrett Shrader got the start. In fact, the week before against Albany DeVito appears to have been benched in the second quarter in favor of Shrader. What happened?
TNIAAM: Well, there’s a lot going on there. Shrader was brought in as a transfer from Mississippi State and the idea was that he’d compete with Tommy for the starting job and worst-case would just take over next year (when DeVito presumably graduates). Babers said before the season that we’d see both players on the field, and started giving real snaps to Shrader vs. Rutgers, yet we didn’t see much from him in three drives during that loss.
A week later, DeVito and Sean Tucker put the Albany game well in hand by mid-way through the second quarter, and Babers gave the ball to Shrader, likely to see what he could do with some extended snaps. I personally wasn’t super impressed with Shrader’s abilities throwing the ball in that game, but it seemed his mobility was enough to get the start vs. Liberty. While Shrader’s passing left much to be desired against the Flames (6-of-15 for 77 yards), he did punch in two scores on the ground and minimized mistakes. I don’t think Shrader’s the better QB at this juncture, but also contend that DeVito wasn’t really putting up impressive enough numbers to avoid being replaced. That may be due to play-calling or the line. But in any case, I think we’ll see plenty of both guys for the rest of the year unless Shrader develops more as a passer.
TN: Does Syracuse still run a version of the Baylor offense? What are Shrader’s strengths and weaknesses as a passer, and how might Babers use Shrader to attack FSU’s defense?
TNIAAM: I honestly couldn’t tell you what the hell we’ve been running sine 2019. The “veer & shoot” was never really implemented with particular proficiency at Syracuse, and the 2016-18 offense was more just letting Dungey improvise, especially once OC Sean Lewis left to take over Kent State. In the years since, this has been a weird offense that’s lacked tempo and can’t find balance. With a basic scheme that’s predicated on speed, it’s been a problem to get anything consistent going on offense lately.
Shrader’s not a particularly strong passer. He can’t really hit moving receivers and usually under- or over-throws his deep ball. He makes quick reads and can move the pocket, which can be a positive. But most of his completions will be made to targets less than 10 yards away. While that doesn’t sound great, I will add that he does utilize the middle of the field more than Tommy does, and I’d argue he’s able to find safety valves more effectively. He’s not more mobile than DeVito, but has the sort of size to run more like Dungey did, pinballing off some would-be tacklers with his size and picking up short yards when called upon.
If his mobility and Sean Tucker’s rushing can suck the FSU defense in, opportunities will open up downfield... provided Shrader can hit those targets, of course.
TN: Running back Sean Tucker nearly leads the country in rushing. If that weren’t enough, he’s also a threat as a pass catcher. How does Tucker fit into Syracuse’s offensive scheme and what are the strongest parts of his game?
TNIAAM: To be honest, Tucker is the offense at current. Dino’s always wanted this scheme to be run-heavy, and while it was at times in the past, it was still largely predicated on Dungey’s mobility more than a traditional rushing attack. Tucker’s ability between the tackles forces a defense to stack the box, and that should theoretically mean receivers are open elsewhere. He has a great mix of size and speed that make him tough to take down, and has good ball security too. The concern is overworking him, which SU can hopefully avoid doing vs. Florida State’s stronger rushing defense. We have other options at running back to give him a breather. Seems like a no-brainer to use them here and there.
TN: Syracuse lost two defensive backs to the third round of the NFL Draft earlier this year, which is quite impressive. Andre Cisco and Obi’s younger brother Ifeatu Melifonwu. How has the Orange compensated for the loss of such talented players? Have they adjusted their coverage schemes? (What main coverages does Syracuse run)
TNIAAM: While it’s never easy to lose a couple NFL players (plus undrafted player Trill Williams, who’s on the Dolphins, too), Syracuse had the misfortune of quite a few injuries last year. With the secondary banged up and without both Cisco and Trill for much of the year, their replacements were largely able to get real snaps, make mistakes and improve as a result. The exception there is true freshman Duce Chesnut, who was SU’s top recruit for 2021. He’s jumped right in as an impact player and has teamed with (future NFL player) Garrett Williams really well at corner.
Syracuse played in a 3-3-5 scheme and the defense has moved from an approach that just constantly blitzed and caused havoc in recent season to one that picks its spots and shows a lot of different looks. Defensive coordinator Tony White’s found a lot of creative ways to get the secondary involved in QB pressure and run stopping, and the linebackers have made huge strides since the start of last year. Their biggest weakness right now is when they play zone (insert basketball joke here). There are usually huge windows available in those cases to throw down field. Meanwhile, SU’s far more effective in man coverage, allowing its big and physical DBs to really disrupt receivers.
TN: Just how good is Cody Roscoe, the edge rusher transfer from McNeese State? And is there anyone else that stands out that Seminole fans should know?
TNIAAM: Roscoe’s a super athletic player who can be plugged in both inside and out on the line, and after getting an initial taste of this defensive scheme last year, he’s really come into his own this year. The 3-3-5 isn’t necessarily predicated on generating a ton of pressure from the line, but he’s found more ways to be disruptive in 2021, and it’s really benefited the team. That pressure was missing last year, and it put a lot on the linebackers, so it’s a welcome change to see more success up front.
Speaking of linebackers, Mikel Jones really hounded Malik Willis last week, and I’d contend he’s one of the best 5-7 linebackers in the conference. He led the ACC in picks last year, and is constantly finding himself in opposing backfields this season. If Syracuse is able hit McKenzie Milton with some regularity, it’s likely because Jones is somehow involved (either directly or indirectly).
TN: Syracuse is 70th in SP+ while FSU is 73rd. What’s your prediction for this game? Give us a final score. Does FSU finally get a win or do the Orange send FSU to 0-5?
TNIAAM: I’d love to say I believe in this Syracuse team’s strong start, but it’s been a mixed and inconsistent bag on offense, and I honestly don’t know what this team does if FSU can put a stop to Sean Tucker running the ball. Perhaps Shrader makes some throws and the defense keeps the ‘Noles in check enough that the Orange are able to win a slugfest. But until I see this team put together a full game on offense vs. an FBS opponent, it’s hard to bank on that.
For now, I’ll cautiously say that FSU wins a 27-23 game by way of the ‘Cuse passing game never really getting going and Florida State having more success running the ball while not creating opportunities for SU takeaways. Can’t say I’ll feel great about that result, but at least it’ll show us what needs to get better to make this season a successful one.
A big thank you to John for taking the time to chat with us! You can find him on Twitter here. Click here to read our answers to his questions. Don’t forget to check out Nunes Magician for your Orange coverage needs.