- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Syracuse Orange open their spring practice drills on Tuesday, trying to build on last year's breakthrough, 8-5 season capped by a win in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. I had a chance to catch up with head coach Doug Marrone recently to preview the issues surrounding the team heading into spring. Here is Part I of our conversation:
I'm curious how the the players' attitudes were after they had their first taste of success in a long time. Do you have to guard against embracing that success?
Doug Marrone: Strategically, I'm not going to lie to you, when the players come back you're thinking, 'OK, here we go. Let's make sure we don't fall into the trap. So let's push them harder and get them off to the right start.' And the players did a great job with that.
They know how hard they have to work. We know we have a lot of challenges. We lost a lot of players who were very productive. We lost 40 percent of our tackles on our defense with two linebackers and two corners and two inside guys leaving us. We lost something like 67 percent of the interceptions and 68 percent of our rushing yards, with Delone Carter. And the challenging thing is who's going to step up?
So, they understand that we have some holes to fill. Some of our guys have to step up and play well. That's what's great about football -- someone's going to step up and surprise you. Some won't do too well. But we're definitely competing better with each other, and we did a lot of things this offseason to create competition.
You had some strong senior leaders on last year's team? Do you think you have the guys who can replace that?
DM: That will be interesting. I'll have a better feel for it when they get out on that football field. We do a lot of leadership training with our players. Some of that is within all of us, and some of that you learn. I think it's hard to replace the leadership of Derrell Smith. You lose a player like Derrell, Mike Holmes, Da'Mon Merkerson. You're talking about players who played here quite a bit and were getting their master's. They were students and doing everything the right way. It's very hard to replace those types of kids.
Linebacker and defensive tackle seem like your biggest holes to fill. How do you feel about your options at those positions?
DM: We have some players that have some talent that are at those positions, or players coming in that have that. So you have options. I'm not sitting here going, ugh, we don't have anybody. Now, who is going to take advantage of this opportunity?
I look back on my sophomore year. I lined up for spring football, I was a fifth-string right tackle and the guy that started [the previous year] was first team. I remember saying, 'I'm going to work hard, and I'm going to force these coaches to find a position for me.' At the end of spring, I became the starting right tackle, and I was the starting tackle the next three years. So we talk to our players all the time about taking advantage of an opportunity. They've done a nice job so far, and now they have to do it on the field.
As a former offensive lineman, how good do you feel about returning four of your five starters at that group this spring?
DM: You know, it's always the same thing. The year before, people say, 'What about this group? There's not a lot of experience, and on the left side none of them ever started a game before.' Ryan Bartholomew had the most starts, but they were at guard and he was playing center. Andrew Tiller had six starts, Michael Hay had none. Now we bring back a group that has a bunch of starts, and they have a few years ahead of them, too. You feel better about that, obviously, because they've been through some battles.
That group ended the year playing well against Kansas State in the bowl game. But my philosophy is you never start where you left off. You start from the beginning. That group, though, has worked very well this offseason.
With Carter gone, Antwon Bailey is your lone experienced back. He's a smaller guy than Delone. Do you view him as an every-down back?
DM: I do look at him that way. We believe he can be an every-down back. Prince-Tyson Gulley did some good things when he was in there in a limited role before he got hurt, and we're excited about him. But I think Antwon can do that.
Any back, if you're in the backfield on first and second down and all of a sudden we split you out as a wide receiver on a post route on third down, it's going to be hard if the ball is completed to come back and be the first-down back again. So we need to be real smart with what we do with Antwon. Obviously, we're going in with the thought of him being that back for us. We'll just see how it goes in the spring, and now with some of our receivers coming back from injury or stepping up, that will be key to see what we do with Antwon as far as splitting him out or putting him out on the perimeter. Then we have a couple of good running backs coming in [this summer].
I talked with you before the bowl game and you lamented the lack of big, explosive plays by your offense. Then you go out and unleash a ton of them on Kansas State. What changed?
DM: How about that? We had more big plays in the bowl game than I think we had all year. I'll tell you exactly what happened. Just like Louisville, we didn't have the bye late in the year. We hit this schedule, which was a tough schedule -- you know, South Florida, Pitt, West Virginia, Cincinnati -- and we hadn't been to bowl game since '04, hadn't had a winning season since '01. So now we're fighting for our lives every week, putting everything we have into it.
So mentally and physically, we got a little bit beat up at the end of the year. And we did everything we could to try and get the team back, but we were in a Catch-22. We still needed to go out there and hit in practice, because we had to get better, and at the end of the day we couldn't afford to lose anyone. So we did a really good job trying to maintain the level of football to be able to go win a game on Saturday.
When the season was over, I said we've got to stop. We gave them a week off and then brought them in for a half-hour just to stretch them and do all recovery work. We weren't going to lift or run, just try to get their bodies recovered. We did that for about 10 days. And when we came back to practice, it was like a different team. I remember I came in from a staff meeting and said, 'Isn't this unbelievable? We look like a totally different football team because we're fresh and ready to go.' I thought, if we could get our timing down, we'll have a chance to hit those explosive plays. And sure enough, we went out there and made those plays.
Marcus Sales came almost out of nowhere for that three-touchdown performance in the bowl. Can he carry that over into this spring and fall?
DM: The interesting part about Marcus Sales is that, the night before the game, I said it wouldn't surprise me if Marcus Sales goes out and has a big game. That was because of how hard he had been working in practice. I also said the same thing about Dorian Graham, and they were really the only two players I pointed out the night before the game. Then Marcus comes out and has that game, and then we come back and Marcus is the first player in that weight room.
Marcus might have learned how hard you have to work and how much time you have to put in to be in position to make those plays. So, yes, I think he has learned that, and as long as he keeps going with that same motto, he has a chance to be a good player.