Of all the players who stood out last season, perhaps Syracuse left tackle Justin Pugh was the biggest revelation.
Nobody knew much about Pugh headed into the season because he had never played a down. But he made himself be known in a big way, helping pave the way for 1,000-yard rusher Delone Carter and protecting the all-important blind side of quarterback Ryan Nassib.
His play got him a second-team All-Big East selection and has him firmly in the conversation as one of the best tackles in the league.
What does he do for an encore? For starters, Pugh spent the summer bulking up. Last season he was a bit undersized at 285 pounds. Now he’s up to 300 pounds.
“That was big for me, to get my strength up and allow me to compete with the defensive ends in this league,” Pugh said. “I’ve put on a lot more muscle, and that was a good step for me.”
Indeed, the Big East boasts a powerful group of defensive ends, from Bruce Irvin to Brandon Lindsey to Jesse Joseph to Julian Miller. But Pugh says it helps going against Chandler Jones during the summer and in practice.
What also helped him step in and contribute right away was playing alongside left guard Zack Chibane. The two have been roommates since the first day they got to campus. They also took their visits to Syracuse together.
So they are able to seamlessly communicate when they are on the field.
“I know I can trust him and he’s going to be there with me,” Pugh said. “We know how to communicate, we know what’s going on and can definitely make sure what we do off the field will carry on to what we do on the field.”
His position as a left tackle was not always so secure. When he was on the scout team his freshman year, Pugh played every position on the line. Then the last few weeks of that year he was moved to left tackle. Coaches saw he could move his feet and had potential at the position.
Going into that spring, coaches named him the starter -- “out of nowhere” he says.
“I had to prove to them I could do it, and to myself I could do it. Once I did it, it became an easy position for me,” he said. “Now, I’ve just got to keep working.”