- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Syracuse finished with another poor record -- 4-8 -- in 2009, but there were some positive developments under first-year head coach Doug Marrone. Despite dealing with a depleted roster due to injuries, dismissals and departures, Marrone and the Orange were in a lot of games, and they pulled off a big upset of Rutgers in their second to last game of the year.
Marrone now enters his second spring practice at Syracuse with some optimism that the program is getting closer to competing for a bowl game. I caught up with Marrone this week to preview the Orange spring drills, which begin Monday. This is Part I of my interview; check back Monday morning for Part II.
Before we look ahead, let's quickly review last year. All things considered, what are your thoughts on your first year there in the job and what you accomplished?
Doug Marrone: Obviously, the loss total was not what we were looking for. But there are signs that things can get better. If you just look at two basic concepts of football, we have to learn to not turn the ball over as much as we did on offense, and then on defense not give up as many big plays and to force turnovers. And then special teams-wise, not give up so many big plays. It's easy to say that, if you take care of those two things you'll be a better football team. But truly we will. There's more to it than that, but that's basically what it comes down to.
As far as getting through that first year, the chemistry among the team and the coaches is continually something that needs to be built yearly. From that standpoint, what I'm excited about going into spring is that there will be much better communication from player to player, from player to coach, from coach to coach now that we've been with each other for a year. The other thing I'm excited about is that the players here are stronger, they're faster, they know exactly what to expect when we step on the field on Monday. So we're in a better stage right now than we were a year ago at this time. That's exciting.
Your roster numbers were pretty low at times last year. Where are you now with that?
DM: Our numbers are still down. I don't know off the top of my head whether it's 56 or 57 scholarship players that are here on our campus now. We had seven players come into our program midterm, and so that leaves us with 24 student-athletes who've signed national letters of intent who are ready to come in. We're not at the numbers where we want to be in the spring, the ultimate numbers of what you would like. So we have to be very smart of how we practice and make sure we're able to get the maximum amount of time in teaching and on the field, but do a good job of making sure they're not out there for times that would put the student-athletes in jeopardy from an injury standpoint.
We're a little bit of a young team. We're a little bit more experienced on defense, where we have some guys who have played. Offensively, we have less experience back. The specialists are all coming back. There are new coaches on staff also. Two of the four are former NFL players -- Rob Moore played here at Syracuse and is coaching wide receivers, and Tyrone Wheatley, who played at Michigan, is coaching our running backs. Jimmy Brumbaugh is our defensive line coach and he played at Auburn, and Nathaniel Hackett came from the Buffalo Bills. So it's been an exciting offseason, too, putting everything together.
Speaking of coaches, you took over as offensive coordinator this offseason. What will a Doug Marrone-run offense look like?
DM: Obviously, offensively, it's multiple. There will be some carryover from last season. The terminology of how a play is called has to be able to come out of my mouth very easily, so the terminology will be different in how we call plays. But it's still the same game as far as how we play football. The good thing is the staff, the new coaches and the coaches that are here, pretty much everyone has a background in how we call this offense. So there's a comfort level and you're not really teaching them.
Let's go position by position, starting with quarterback. Ryan Nassib played a lot of snaps for you last year. Is he the No. 1 guy going into spring?
DM: I always look at it as there's competition for every position every spring. But some of the things that Ryan has to build on are obviously the experience of playing last year and dealing with the players, and also being around Greg Paulus. I think that's something that can help Ryan. And you know Charley Loeb was a freshman last year, and you're excited about some of the things you saw him do during the course of being on the scout team. We're looking forward to seeing his ability to come in and his leadership and see the two compete against each other.
What did Nassib do last year that you liked during his time on the field and what does he need to get better at?
DM: Again, it's the ability to handle the situation and handle the offense. The play's coming in and being able to call the plays and get everyone on the same page, and the ability to go out there and execute at a level where we can win. Obviously we're always looking for more at that position as we are every position, because we weren't satisfied with the won-loss record. With the situations we put him in last year, I felt he did a very, very good job. But now can he or Charley or any other quarterback who's coming in do it for all four quarters throughout the whole season with the consistency that we need at that position?
You're a former offensive lineman, so I know you look closely at that group. How do you feel about that unit going into the spring?
DM: I like this group. I think we have some athleticism and some size on that line. I'll be interested to see, at the end of the day, at the end of spring, some continuity with that group. I think we still have to focus on some diversity among those players. I don't think we can lock in a player at a certain position where if they can play that, that's good, that's set. We have to find a way to get the best five out there, so some of those guys during the spring may play a different position. I'm looking forward to seeing some of the young kids we signed last year step up and to see what they have. And we brought some new kids into the program midyear that we think will be able to help us. So I think we've created good competition at that position, and the best five will play.
How's the depth there?
DM: The depth is good, but again because of the overall numbers, it's probably a little short as far as going into the spring. Like trying to develop a third center during the spring is probably something we'll be looking at. We've got a center coming in as a freshman -- Coach Mac's son, Macky MacPherson -- but he's still in high school. So developing that third center is something we're looking at.
You were looking for some receivers to step up last year, and at the end of the season a couple of young guys like Alec Lemon were playing better. Where does that group stand now, and are there players that maybe we're not talking about right now?
DM: Alec Lemon did a very good job at the end of year for us making catches, and obviously we're looking forward to seeing how much better he's gotten in the offseason program. Mike Jones is an interesting kid. He was a running back initially, he returned kicks for us and through some injury situations he wound up moving to the receiver position and really did well. He's someone who can make plays with the ball in his hands. And then we have some younger kids with Marcus Sales and Van Chew. They have some skill and we'll see how they compete. The wild card in all of this is, we were able to take a kid from Hofstra because they dropped their program named Aaron Weaver. He has a very good build -- he's a big kid at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds -- who was very productive for Hofstra. He's a very bright kid. I'll be interested to see what he can do to help us.
DM: Yeah, it's a pretty good group. All three players bring a little bit different dynamic to that position. Delone is a big, strong powerful runner with good speed who can do a lot of things. Antwon Bailey did a lot of nice things; he played quarterback in the Wildcat offense and was able to line up in the slot position and catch a couple balls vertically down the field. Averin Collier came on at the end of the year and really did some nice things to make some plays. You're excited about where you are with that group. It's just a matter of how many touches each of those guys get.