Syracuse becomes the first team to open spring practice, beginning the Dino Babers era Tuesday morning. So what to expect? Here are three questions that need answers.
1. What happens at quarterback? Not even Babers knows. Tuesday’s practice is the first time he will see Eric Dungey, Zack Mahoney, Austin Wilson and early enrollee Rex Culpepper in live action. Dungey has started more games than any of the other quarterbacks on the roster, but there is little doubt every player will be given a clean slate to earn the starting job.
“I expect them to compete,” Babers said in a recent interview. “If they compete and they’re ready to learn something they’ve never seen before, somebody is going to come out of there as a captain of one fantastic jet fighter and they’re going to get to do something they’ve never done before and that’s go really, really fast and hopefully be able to target and hit the things they’re throwing at.”
Of course, the next part is making sure the eventual starter stays healthy for the entire season. Over the last two years, Syracuse has had to start five different quarterbacks. “Hopefully they’ve got all that out of the way,” Babers said about the run of bad injury luck.
2. What exactly will the offense look like? Babers has dropped hints about how fast he wants to go as an offense, and that is all going to start during spring practice -- when players get their first taste of a radically different mindset. Babers didn’t want to discuss how different his practices are going to be for his players when asked for specifics. We do know this: His former team, Bowling Green, finished 2015 ranked in the top 10 nationally in total offense (546.8 ypg), pass offense (366.8 ypg), third-down conversion percentage (.502) and scoring offense (42.2 ppg).
Syracuse was nowhere near the top 10 as an offense. Having said that, the Orange do return 99.6 percent of their total offensive production, including Ervin Phillips, Brisly Estime, Steve Ishmael, Jordan Fredericks and Dontae Strickland.
3. Who is going to step up for the Syracuse defensive line? The biggest area for concern on defense is at end, where no current lineman has played in a collegiate game. Redshirt freshmen Jake Pickard and Kenny Carter are the only two who return with any meaningful practice time at the position. For that reason, Babers moved tight end Trey Dunkelberger and early enrollee Kenneth Ruff to defensive end for spring practice. Ruff, recruited as linebacker, had more than 30 sacks in his high school career.
There’s no doubt improvements must be made rushing the passer, even with so many inexperienced players at the position. Syracuse only had 23 sacks last year, tied for No. 82 in the nation. The defensive performance was below what had been a standard set under both Doug Marrone and Scott Shafer. Syracuse allowed an average of more than 400 yards per game for the first time since 2008. As many questions surround the offense with the offensive-minded Babers in charge, the defense has its own issues to sort out this spring.