NCF Nation: Dyshawn Davis

Syracuse Orange season preview

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Syracuse Orange:

Key returners: QB Terrel Hunt, RB Prince-Tyson Gulley, WR Ashton Broyld, LT Sean Hickey, LG Rob Trudo, DT Eric Crume, LB Dyshawn Davis, LB Cameron Lynch, CB Brandon Reddish, S Durell Eskridge

Key losses: RB Jerome Smith, C Macky MacPherson, LB Marquis Spruill, DT Jay Bromley, CB Ri'Shard Anderson, S Jeremi Wilkes

Most Important 2014 games: Sept. 27 vs. Notre Dame (in East Rutherford, New Jersey), Oct. 3 vs. Louisville, Nov. 8 vs. Duke, Nov. 22 at Pitt, Nov. 29 at Boston College

Projected win percentage (from ESPN Stats & Information): 51 percent

Over/under Vegas odds: 5.5

[+] EnlargeTerrel Hunt
AP Photo/Phil SearsTerrel Hunt passed for 1,638 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. He added another 500 yards rushing with seven touchdowns on the ground.
Instant impact newcomer: John Miller best fits this bill, as he is a junior college transfer who saw just limited time last season, his first with the Orange. Now the former Los Angeles Harbor College player looks to build off a spring that saw him emerge as one of the team's most improved players and as a leader on offense. Miller is the front-runner to start at center for Syracuse and should allow others around him to stay in their natural positions.

High point from 2013: Terrel Hunt hit Josh Parris for an 8-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left in the regular-season finale to top rival Boston College 34-31 and earn win No. 6. This was a major boost for Syracuse, which ended up beating Minnesota in the Texas Bowl to finish 7-6 in Year 1 of both the Scott Shafer and the ACC eras. It might have been a watershed moment for Hunt, too, as he enters 2014 looking to take the next step as a leader of this offense.

Low point from 2013: Losing big to heavyweights Florida State and Clemson is one thing. But a 56-0 loss at Georgia Tech, a team that went just 7-6 and enters 2014 with major questions, is pretty much inexcusable. It stands out even more considering the Orange entered the game coming off a win at NC State and won two straight contests right after the Atlanta trip. (It also stands out after Shafer made his thoughts known about Atlanta winters, and after the Twitterverse replied as the Twitterverse is wont to do.)

Best-case scenario for 2014: Hunt evolves as a passer and as a runner, orchestrating an offense that has made it known it would like to push the tempo in 2014. Unlike last year, the Orange enter the season knowing who their No. 1 quarterback is, and that proves beneficial as they race out to an early 3-0 start. The front seven steps up and Syracuse is able to steal a win during a tough three-game stretch against Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State, emerging on the other end ready to tackle a final month that concludes with road contests at former Big East foes Pitt and BC. Syracuse improves in Shafer's second season, hitting his goal of at least eight wins, and the future looks bright for a program looking to emerge as a legitimate No. 3 team in a top-heavy Atlantic division behind FSU and Clemson.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: Hunt struggles to command the offense with more responsibility, the defense can't seem to make up for the loss of Bromley up front and the Orange get eaten alive by a tough schedule. A trip to Wake Forest provides a reprieve during a five-game stretch that features the aforementioned teams above plus Clemson on the other end. No matter, though, as a physically beaten team staggers into the final month with only NC State as a winnable game. Syracuse wins four games, its worst season since Doug Marrone's inaugural 2009 campaign.

They said it: "I was happy with the way we finished the season. I thought both Terrel [Hunt] and the wide receivers did a nice job finishing up with the victory over Minnesota in the Texas Bowl, but we need to take it to the next level to get to the next level. We're always going to really work hard to run the football. I believe in running the football, I believe in stopping the run. I think that's where it starts with our philosophy. But in this day and age, you've got to be able to open it up, and we put the onus on our passing game, our wide receivers, to take their game up." -- Shafer, on the passing game becoming more explosive
Dyshawn Davis wore Syracuse gym shorts, a vest buckled to a rope and a red helmet labeled “common sense,” but what he was about to do seemed utterly incongruous with the headgear’s message.

The Syracuse linebacker stared out over the expanse of the Orenda Springs rope course in nearby Marcellus, New York, and his stomach turned and his mind raced. Behind him, dozens of kids shouted his name. Over the past five weeks, he’d seen those kids learn so much by trusting him, and he knew he couldn’t turn back now.

“That was something I’ll always remember,” Davis said. “It’ll stick with me my whole life.”

[+] EnlargeDyshawn Davis
Courtesy of Joe Horan/Building Men ProgramSyracuse linebacker Dyshawn Davis gained as much from his summer with the Building Men program as the kids he mentored.
Davis, a senior linebacker for the Orange, spent the summer working with the kids as part of the Building Men program, an educational outreach pilot program in Syracuse designed to help young men learn to make good decisions and develop character and leadership. Davis was one of five Orange players to intern with the organization, and it’s an experience, he said, that impacted him as much as it did the kids.

“That’s just what I love to do, laughing with them and just having a good time,” Davis said. “Some kids remind me of myself when I was younger. A lot might not have father figures in their life, maybe not even any mentors. So just to affect those kids in a positive way is a blessing.”

A year ago, program director Joe Horan invited Davis and other Syracuse athletes to speak to the program, and the linebacker was eager to return in the winter. When Horan was given permission to start the summer program this year, Davis didn’t think twice about signing up as an intern.

He’d arrive each day before 9 a.m. and spend the morning working with kids in the classroom. Science was his focus, though Davis quickly learned that mentoring the students involved a little bit of everything.

“He built relationships with kids,” Horan said. “They’d act up in the classroom and he’d take them out in the hall, walk them around, talk about what they did wrong and how to do things better.”

Each afternoon, the program invites in guest speakers or takes the students on a trip -- like the rope course -- but the highlight of most days is the basketball league.

After lunch, the kids gather on the basketball courts, where each of the Syracuse players serves as coach of his own team. They play every day.

“We’re competitive,” Davis said. “We have games going throughout the week. We have a little season. ... We know they look up to us, so we just try to be a positive influence.”

With the football season just a few weeks away, Davis is back to the grind of fall camp now, but Horan said the impact Davis had on his students will last for a lifetime.

Davis said he hopes that’s true, but he’s also certain he got as much out of the experience as the kids did.

“I learned something every day,” Davis said. “It can be hard sometimes working with kids. At the end of the day, they’re kids, they can drive you crazy. But when I was growing up, in the classroom, I didn’t have a D-1 football player come and be there with us, show us the right way to make decisions, stressing that school is important. I never had that. So being a part of that now is just so special.”

ACC preseason power rankings

August, 26, 2013
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Ranking the teams in the ACC heading into the first weekend of the regular season:

1. Clemson: There's no questioning the talent at Clemson, where Tajh Boyd is in the hunt for a Heisman and Sammy Watkins looks to regain his place among college football's elite playmakers. But the burden of massive expectations will be with the Tigers from the start, and they'll be tested early with a season opener against Georgia.

2. Florida State: A lot of talent has left Tallahassee since last year's ACC championship, but the cupboard isn't bare for Jimbo Fisher. There are bound to be some growing pains with a new quarterback and a new defensive scheme, but Florida State still might be the most talented team in the conference.

3. Miami: The black cloud of NCAA sanctions has passed, and Al Golden has a team poised to finally take a step back toward relevance on a national stage. Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson headline a potent offensive attack, and the Hurricanes return one of the most experienced teams in the conference.

4. North Carolina: The Tar Heels need to replace Giovani Bernard and find some answers on both sides of the line, but Bryn Renner & Co. are now well versed in Larry Fedora's system, making North Carolina a legitimate threat in the Coastal Division.

5. Virginia Tech: After last season's implosion, Virginia Tech figures to enjoy something of a rebound, but there are still some major questions looming. The offensive line could be a significant issue, meaning more pressure on QB Logan Thomas. And, with a showdown versus Alabama to start the season, the Hokies could find themselves in an early hole.

6. Georgia Tech: The defense improved down the stretch last season, and new coordinator Ted Roof seems to have found a system that fits the legitimate talent Georgia Tech has on that side of the ball. Vad Lee takes over at quarterback for what could be a prolific offense, giving the Yellow Jackets a legitimate shot at another ACC championship game appearance.

7. Wake Forest: The Deacons have a veteran roster and a manageable schedule, so improving on last year's 5-7 finish shouldn't be a reach. The key will be finding some success offensively after ranking 116th nationally in scoring offense and struggling mightily to run the football last season.

8. NC State: New coach Dave Doeren inherits a roster in transition, but there is some talent returning. NC State has a solid stable of receivers, even if the quarterback position remains a question mark. The Wolfpack should be thrilled with another winning season, but there's plenty of work to be done.

9. Maryland: At the very least, Maryland should have a more settled situation at quarterback this season after sifting through five starters at the position in 2012. Add a potentially strong defense and an impressive playmaker in Stefon Diggs, and the Terps have a shot at leaving the ACC on a high note.

10. Pittsburgh: The ACC didn't exactly roll out the welcome mat for the Panthers, who have the misfortune of opening their season against the defending conference champs. But if Paul Chryst's crew can hold its own against Florida State on Labor Day, the outlook for Pitt could improve markedly.

11. Syracuse: A new coach, a new quarterback and a new conference mean plenty of question marks for the Orange as they enter 2013, but Syracuse figures to have one of the better defenses in the league, led by linebacker Dyshawn Davis.

12. Duke: There's no question 2012 was a big step forward for the Duke program, which reached a bowl game for the first time in nearly two decades. But there's plenty of rebuilding to do, even if new QB Anthony Boone looks ready to take over the offense. Plus, for all of last year's success, Duke still lost six of its final seven games.

13. Virginia: Mike London appears to be finding his footing at Virginia, but the rebuilding process continues. The Cavaliers lost both of last year's quarterbacks, and major question marks remain on both sides of the ball.

14. Boston College: The Eagles won just one game against an FBS opponent last season, and, not surprisingly, a massive overhaul of the coaching staff followed. Steve Addazio has injected some life into the program, but Chase Rettig & Co. still have a long way to go.
To get an idea of how Pitt and Syracuse could do in Year 1 in the ACC, forget the quarterback uncertainty gripping both schools and instead focus on defense.

Here's why.

If Pitt and Syracuse had played in the ACC last season, both schools would have ranked in the top half of the league in the four major defensive statistical categories -- total defense, rushing defense, passing defense, and scoring defense. Pitt would have been No. 2 in three of those categories (total D, passing D, scoring D).

While it is tough to compare the numbers across the leagues -- ACC defenses faced more prolific offenses than Big East defenses -- the numbers do carry some weight. Neither team is a lightweight on that side of the ball. Far from it. The former Big East has built a reputation for turning out some pretty solid defenses, and pretty solid defensive players. In the 2013 NFL draft, for example, 11 of the 19 players selected from the Big East played on defense. In 2012, both first-round picks from the Big East were defensive players.

Let's move on to this season, where the bigger challenge awaits. Pitt returns nine players from a defense that ranked in the Top 20 in the nation last season in total defense and passing defense. Though defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable is gone, coach Paul Chryst promoted Matt House to take over, allowing for consistency and continuity. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald has appeared on four watch lists already (Bednarik, Outland, Nagurski, Lombardi). Lafayette Pitts and K'Waun Williams are a great tandem at cornerback.

As for Syracuse, coach Scott Shafer comes from the defensive side of the ball. His ability to get results out of that defense was one of the big reasons he was promoted to head coach. His game plans last year against Louisville and West Virginia -- two of the best offenses Syracuse faced all year -- were outstanding. The Orange do have a bigger rebuilding job than the Panthers, and are much thinner up front. They return six starters. Two -- linebackers Marquis Spruill and Dyshawn Davis -- have 59 starts between them.

How these two teams end up doing is a guess at this point. But if they continue to play solidly on defense, the have a great chance of surprising a lot of people.
Brace yourselves.

This is not the ACC power rankings you are used to. It is bigger. Let’s hope it’s not badder. The first version of the 2013 ACC power rankings reflects the addition of Pittsburgh Panthers and Syracuse Orange. There are 14 teams here (and Boston College is still last). Welcome to the league, Pitt and Cuse.

There are still plenty of questions for several teams that have players still undecided about their NFL careers, but this is your first take on a ranking likely to change many times between now and the opening kickoff. Lots can happen (and does) during signing day, spring ball and summer camp, but here is how Andrea Adelson and I think the ACC will shape up this fall based on what we know now:

1. Clemson -- With quarterback Tajh Boyd and offensive coordinator Chad Morris working together again, the Tigers would have the best coordinator/quarterback combo returning in the ACC. The defense should take another step forward in the second season under coordinator Brent Venables, and the Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over LSU was a monumental springboard for the program heading into the offseason.

2. Florida State -- The Seminoles will be going through a transition, as coach Jimbo Fisher has to replace at least five assistants on his staff, as well as starting quarterback EJ Manuel. With several players, including defensive end Bjoern Werner, leaving early for the NFL draft, the Noles will have to reload.

3. Miami -- The Hurricanes hoped their self-imposed bowl ban was a preemptive strike against NCAA sanctions. With quarterback Stephen Morris returning, along with ACC Rookie of the Year Duke Johnson and what could be one of the best offensive lines in the ACC, expectations should be much higher for the Canes in Year 3 under Al Golden.

4. Georgia Tech -- The Yellow Jackets will have some momentum and confidence to build on after their bowl win over USC, but more importantly, they’ve got an experienced, talented roster to work with. Georgia Tech will have eight starters back on a defense that made measurable progress in the second half of the season.

5. UNC -- Coach Larry Fedora is going to have to work some magic in trying to replace leading rusher/returner Giovani Bernard, who left early for the NFL, and his lead blocker, Jonathan Cooper. Quarterback Bryn Renner will be a senior, though, and the Tar Heels have other talented running backs waiting in the wings.

6. Pitt -- The moment every Pitt fan has been waiting for -- Tino Sunseri will no longer be the starting quarterback in 2013. Does that mean the position gets an automatic upgrade? Promising running back Rushel Shell returns, and Pitt's defense should be much better, but questions remain on the offensive line.

7. Virginia Tech -- The school has yet to announce any staff changes, quarterback Logan Thomas has yet to announce whether or not he is returning for his senior season, and the Hokies open the schedule against national champion Alabama. Doesn’t look good.

8. Syracuse -- Major questions surround the Orange now that coach Doug Marrone has left for the Buffalo Bills. This is a team that already had to replace starting quarterback Ryan Nassib, all-Big East tackle Justin Pugh, record-setting receiver Alec Lemon and leading tackler Shamarko Thomas. But Syracuse does have 1,000-yard rusher Jerome Smith returning, along with linebackers Marquis Spruill and Dyshawn Davis. Many questions must be answered before 2013 begins.

9. Maryland -- It can only get better, right? Maryland was down to its fifth-string quarterback last year, linebacker Shawn Petty. Starter C.J. Brown should be ready to return to the starting lineup this summer and healed from a torn ACL. The defense has some big shoes to fill, but the Terps should have enough experience to be bowl bound in their final season in the ACC.

10. Wake Forest -- The Deacs were thrown off track last season by injuries and suspensions and should be a better team this year. Quarterback Tanner Price returns for his senior season, along with receiver Michael Campanaro, who should be one of the best in the ACC if he can stay healthy.

11. Duke -- The Blue Devils have to replace quarterback Sean Renfree and his top target, ACC record-setting receiver, Conner Vernon. Duke went to its first bowl game since 1994, but the program still has something to prove after losing its last five games of the season. The Coastal Division should collectively be stronger this year.

12. Virginia -- Phillip Sims will take over at quarterback after the transfer of Michael Rocco, but how much time will David Watford see under center? The hires of Tom O’Brien and Jon Tenuta were smart moves, but the staff will have to find a way to extract more out of many of the same players who struggled last year.

13. NC State -- Quarterback Mike Glennon is out, and first-year coach Dave Doeren is in. The Wolfpack will have an entirely different look this fall, and some bumps in the road should be expected as the program begins a new era under Doeren.

14. Boston College -- The Eagles have lots of work to do under first-year coach Steve Addazio. It all starts with recruiting, but the staff is also going to have to find a way to improve the running game and get the defense back to its stingy ways.
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Pitt and Syracuse will soon be the ACC's problem. Maybe that conference can figure each team out, because both remain mysteries in the Big East little more than a month into their last hurrahs.

The final meeting between these programs in Big East play went the way of the Orange, as they edged the Panthers 14-13 in a Friday-night home contest. It had been almost a year since Syracuse won a Big East game, that one also coming during a Friday-night home game over an outgoing conference member (West Virginia).

Make no mistake: This is a huge victory for the Orange, who did themselves no favors in the tough nonconference portion of their schedule and need every win they can get to have a shot of getting to a bowl game. Coach Doug Marrone shouldered much of the load publicly during the bye week, and his players answered early and held on strong late to pull out the tight victory.

Syracuse marched 70 yards on its first drive of the game to go up 7-0 ... and did not score offensively afterward. A 52-yard fumble return by Dyshawn Davis -- on a turnover forced by Jeremi Wilkes -- made it 14-0 before the first quarter was over, and the Orange defense stepped up big against the Panthers.

Pitt, also coming off a bye, entered this game riding a historic two-game offensive stretch but failed to generate much momentum. Ray Graham had trouble throughout the night, rushing it 24 times for just 57 yards and the team's lone touchdown. He added 31 yards on four catches. The Panthers as a team finished with 27 rushing yards on 37 carries, and they did themselves no favors by committing six penalties.

Pitt's Tino Sunseri put up pretty numbers -- 25 of 33 for 319 yards with no turnovers -- but was on his back much of the night, getting little help up front but stepping up time and again. Brandon Sharpe led the charge for the Orange, recording four of the team's five sacks and stopping Pitt whenever it threatened, often forcing the Panthers out of field-goal range. Sharpe finished with six tackles for loss.

Five games (and two conference tilts) in, and it's fair to call Pitt the Big East's biggest enigma, looking awful for two weeks, great the next two and falling somewhere in between Friday. Next Saturday the Panthers host preseason conference favorite Louisville, which will be coming off a bye, so all bets are off with this bunch moving forward as it looks to improve off its 0-2 Big East start.

Syracuse (2-3, 1-0) visits Rutgers next Saturday.

Big East position rankings: LB

February, 22, 2012
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We continue with our final 2011 position rankings by moving to linebacker. There were plenty of exemplary individual performances in this group, as six teams were represented on the Big East first and second teams. But this evaluation is of the unit as a whole, so I am factoring in the performance of every starter, along with depth and stats.

[+] EnlargeKhaseem Greene
Rich Kane/Icon SMIKhaseem Greene's position switch went better than anyone could have expected, as he ended up leading the conference in tackles.
1. Rutgers. Khaseem Greene's move to linebacker was the smartest position change of the year, pushing the Scarlet Knights into the top spot in this category. Greene led the league with 140 tackles en route to Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors. He was essentially all over the field. Greene and Steve Beauharnais were the only linebacker tandem to finish in the top 10 in the Big East in tackles for loss. Add in the much-improved Jamal Merrell and it's easy to see why this group is No. 1. Preseason ranking: No. 4.

2. Cincinnati. J.K. Schaffer had yet another outstanding season for the Bearcats, racking up 100 tackles once again. But quietly, Maalik Bomar put together a nice year as well, and that helped make up for some serious question marks that surrounded this unit going into the season. True freshmen Dwight Jackson and Nick Temple made contributions, but on the whole it was the Schaffer show again and that was enough to boost this group. Preseason ranking: 8.

3. Louisville. Dexter Heyman and Preston Brown had career seasons for the Cardinals, elevating the position and helping Louisville post another outstanding season on defense. Heyman and Brown finished in the top 15 in the Big East in tackles, and Heyman ranked fourth in the league with 16 tackles for loss. His play earned him second-team honors, and he leaves a big hole to fill for 2012. Preseason ranking: 3.

4. UConn. The Huskies were one of two teams without a linebacker on the Big East first or second team. But I thought this position group was vastly underrated for most of the year. Sio Moore came up with some big plays, and Yawin Smallwood and Jory Johnson developed nicely throughout the season. To illustrate how active Moore was, he was the top linebacker in tackles for loss with 16. This unit should be even better in 2012. Preseason ranking: 2.

5. USF. The Bulls were the other team without a linebacker named to the Big East first or second team but that shouldn't diminish the season DeDe Lattimore had. He had seven sacks, 13 tackles for loss and led the team in tackles. In fact, all three linebackers led the team, in Mike Lanaris and Sam Barrington. But the group as a whole underachieved, as the Bulls struggled to get teams off the field and were often times out of position to make a play. Preseason ranking: 1.

6. West Virginia. Middle linebacker Najee Goode had a terrific season, earning first team Big East honors. But beyond him, there were few significant contributions. Injuries hurt and so did inexperience. Plus, the expected emergence of junior college transfer Josh Francis never materialized. Between Jared Barber, Jewone Snow and Doug Rigg, there was not much doing in this group. Preseason ranking: 5.

7. Pitt. The problem in evaluating Pitt is this -- Brandon Lindsey played both end and linebacker in the hybrid Panther role. Does he get evaluated with the line group or the linebacker group? He started eight games on the line, so I gave more weight to his contributions at end. However, I did take him into account for this unit, though it was not enough to life this group up much as a whole. Max Gruder was solid, but otherwise this was a lackluster bunch. Todd Thomas showed some spark but injuries slowed him down. Between Shane Gordon, Greg Williams and Tristan Roberts, there were problems all year. Preseason ranking: 6.

8. Syracuse. It was a struggle for the Orange on defense this season, and linebacker was no exception. Marquis Spruill had to make the transition to middle linebacker and struggled at times. Dyshawn Davis showed glimpses as a true freshman. Dan Vaughan actually was the leading linebacker in tackles. You generally want your linebackers to lead the team in that category, and that was not the case this season. But there is talent here. Another year of development for Spruill and Davis could yield big things in 2012. Preseason ranking: 7.

Big East all-freshman team

December, 16, 2011
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Earlier this week, I listed a few of my top freshmen in the Big East. Now I present my Big East All-Freshman team. True freshmen and redshirt freshmen are included. Some positions were much easier to fill than others. Here is my team:

Offense

QB: Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville

RB: Lyle McCombs, UConn

RB: Dustin Garrison, West Virginia

WR: Michaelee Harris, Louisville

WR: Deonte Welch, USF

WR: DeVante Parker, Louisville

OL: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers

OL: Quinterrius Eatmon, USF

OL: Jake Smith, Louisville

OL: John Miller, Louisville

OL: Eric Lefeld, Cincinnati

Defense

DL: B.J. Dubose, Louisville

DL: Elkino Watson, USF

DL: Jamaine Brooks, Louisville

LB: Yawin Smallwood, UConn

LB: Dyshawn Davis, Syracuse

LB: Todd Thomas, Pitt

LB: Jewone Snow, West Virginia

DB: Ty-Meer Brown, UConn

DB: Calvin Pryor, Louisville

DB: Andrew Johnson, Louisville

DB: Byron Jones, UConn

Specialists

K: Tony Miliano, Cincinnati

P: Jonathan Fisher, Syracuse

KR: Jeremiah Kobena, Syracuse

The toughest choices for me were at running back and receiver. I went back and forth between Garrison and Rutgers redshirt freshman Jawan Jamison. Their yardage and touchdown totals are virtually identical, but Garrison has a much better yards per carry average and was a more explosive player this season. Receiver was probably the toughest because of the three freshmen receivers for Louisville. I had Eli Rogers on this list at various points, but went with Parker because of his six touchdown receptions.

You also see only three down linemen. There were simply not many impact freshmen defensive linemen in the league this year. The same goes for cornerback (which is why I went with three safeties) and tight end. Those were the three weakest positions for freshmen in the league. Receiver, running back and linebacker were the strongest.

Big East top freshmen in 2011

December, 14, 2011
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Several true and redshirt freshmen made a big impact in the Big East this season. Who was the best of the best? Here are my top impact freshman, and one to watch in 2012.

Tops in 2011:

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. Bridgewater won the Big East Newcomer of the Year award for good reason. He took over the starting quarterback job after leading the team to a victory over Kentucky and set the school record for passing yards by a freshman with 1,855. He also ranks No. 12 on the Scouts Inc., top 25 freshman players list. They say, "His ability to improvise when the play starts to break down is his greatest strength. He is able to buy time with his feet and he has the arm strength to zip the ball downfield when he rolls out."

Lyle McCombs, RB, UConn. McCombs was expected to share carries with D.J. Shoemate when the year began. But after Shoemate got hurt, the rushing load fell to McCombs and he delivered. McCombs led the Big East in rushing with 1,115 yards -- the ninth-highest single-season total in school history and the second among freshmen at UConn. He was a second-team All-Big East selection, and also ranked No. 3 in the Big East in all-purpose yards. He ranks No. 24 on the Scouts Inc., list. They say, "McCombs is an undersized back with a nice combination of quickness and elusiveness as a runner. He flashes exceptional lateral agility to make defenders miss in a confined area and has the acceleration to squeeze through tight creases."

Elkino Watson, DT, USF. Watson was part of the two-deep rotation and ended up with one sack and nine tackles for loss.

Ralph David Abernathy IV, KR, Cincinnati. Abernathy emerged as a top special-teams player, averaging 24.7 yards on kickoff returns. His long went for 74 yards this season, and he finished with 914 total yards on kickoff returns.

Dustin Garrison, RB, West Virginia. Garrison emerged from a trio of runners to be the top back for the Mountaineers, rushing for 742 yards and six touchdowns. His average of 5.5 yards per carry was the best among the top 10 statistical rushers in the Big East.

Dyshawn Davis, LB, Syracuse. Davis started all 12 games, recording four sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Jeremiah Kobena, KR, Syracuse. Kobena led the Big East with 1,027 yards on kickoff returns, returning 45 kicks for an average of 22.8 yards. His yardage total ranks second on the Syracuse single-season record list and third on the Big East single-season list.

Yawin Smallwood, LB, UConn. Smallwood finished tied for No. 6 in the Big East with 94 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and an interception.

Kaleb Johnson, RT, Rutgers. Johnson started all 10 games he played in this season for the Scarlet Knights, helping the offensive line improve dramatically from last season.

Eli Rogers, WR, Louisville. Rogers finished second on the team with 400 yards receiving and one touchdown, and emerged as a go-to player for Bridgewater.

One to watch in 2012:

Rushel Shell, RB. Shell, out of Aliquippa, Pa., is committed to Pitt and would no doubt come in and compete for the starting job should Ray Graham not return. There is plenty of talent at this position, with Isaac Bennett and Corey Davis returning, along with Malcolm Crockett. But Shell is listed as the No. 24 player on the ESPNU 150 rankings, and is one of the most complete backs in the class of 2012. Todd Graham will find a place for him if he lives up to expectations.

Halftime: Syracuse 7, Rutgers 3

October, 1, 2011
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Syracuse leads Rutgers 7-3 at halftime in what has been an ugly first half for both teams.

The Orange have the lone touchdown of the game off a turnover -- Dyshawn Davis delivered a hard hit on Jawan Jamison, who fumbled. Ri'Shard Anderson picked it up and returned the ball 66 yards for a touchdown. That was the second play of the game. After that, there were not many highlights for either team.

Syracuse has two first downs and 88 total yards. Neither team has been able to establish the run game. Rutgers has been able to move the ball, but the Scarlet Knights have two turnovers, two missed field goals and are just 3-of-11 on third down. Those are the reasons they are losing, despite having more yards and first downs and dominating time of possession.

The Orange defense has done a nice job of covering Mohamed Sanu, who has four catches for 55 yards -- including an incredible one-handed grab. They are playing without Shamarko Thomas and Chandler Jones once again, but have been able to get good pressure on Chas Dodd. Their plan has been to double cover Sanu.

Rutgers also has done a nice job with their pressure on Ryan Nassib, and have used the blitz effectively. We'll see whether either of these offenses can get something going in the second half.
Nobody put much stock in a rebound from Syracuse last season, mostly because the program had been down for so long. The last bowl game came in 2004; the last bowl win in 2001.

But the Orange were one of the surprise teams of the 2010 season, making it back to a bowl game in Year 2 under coach Doug Marrone. As difficult as it was to turn around a losing program, perhaps an even bigger challenge awaits in Year 3: maintaining that momentum and moving forward.

[+] EnlargeDoug Marrone
William Perlman/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireLast season, Doug Marrone led Syracuse to its first bowl win since 2001.
Coaches always talk about the difficulty in sustaining success because so much is required of both players and coaches. All of a sudden, expectations are ratcheted up and everybody expects more wins and championships to follow. Syracuse was picked to finish fourth in the Big East preseason media poll, a clear indication of the respect that was earned with a 8-5 campaign in 2010.

So how do the Orange keep the momentum going that they built last season?

"We really don't talk a lot about last year," Marrone said. "But I do understand the question about what we're trying to do. Our goal is to be able to compete for a Big East championship. We've talked about that with our players. We want to be a consistent football team and one year doesn’t make you consistent. We haven't produced back-to-back winning seasons since 2001 or back-to-back bowl games since 1999. We haven't won a season opener two years in a row since 2000. There's a lot of things in terms of history because recently we have not been a good football team. This is what we're trying to change."

There was a time, of course, when Syracuse was a very good football team that competed for Big East championships. Marrone has his team pointed back in that direction. The offense has solid players in Antwon Bailey, Ryan Nassib, Van Chew, Alec Lemon and the entire offensive line. The defense is new this season, with six new starters, including both cornerbacks, both defensive tackles and true freshman Dyshawn Davis at linebacker.

Because of the youth, much of camp was spent teaching.

"When nobody’s looking is when you win games," defensive coordinator Scott Shafer said. "We watch video together and talk about what’s good, bad, unacceptable, acceptable and teach the kids what we’re looking for and the next day try to make real small improvements. If we can keep chipping away, we can be a competitive defense and give our offense a chance to get some drives and do things."

The opener provides a big test Thursday night. Wake Forest may have had a losing season last year, but it was not too long ago that the Demon Deacons were playing in the Orange Bowl as ACC champs. Syracuse does not have a great record against the ACC, going 1-12 against teams from that league since 1996. The strength of Wake Forest is in the backfield, where Josh Harris led the team with 720 yards rushing last season. He averaged 5.7 yards a carry -- the third-highest average in school history.

Syracuse has four new starters among its front seven and a new middle linebacker in Marquis Spruill, who started last season on the outside. So Wake most likely will try to pound Harris to perhaps expose some weaknesses in the Syracuse front. If Syracuse can contain him, the Orange will increase its chances of starting the season with another confidence-boosting win.

"It's not just the season opener," Marrone said. "It's every single game we play until we start winning and becoming consistent, history will be against us. Everyone says you want to get off to a fast start. You do because every game is meaningful. For us, every game's a dogfight."

Four teams set to open camp

August, 5, 2011
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Four Big East teams are set to open camp Friday. Here are a few burning questions for each.

Connecticut

1. Quarterbacks. One of the biggest question perhaps in all of the Big East is how the defending Big East BCS representative is going to fare at the quarterback position. Coach Paul Pasqualoni said at media day that he would like to make a decision as quickly as possible, but he also wants to do his due diligence in evaluating Michael Nebrich, Michael Box, Scott McCummings and Johnny McEntee. He is not leaning one way right now.

2. Pasqualoni makes his return. Many people wonder whether they are going to see the Pasqualoni from the first part of his tenure at Syracuse or his last. This was not a sexy hire by any stretch, but Pasqualoni does have Big East ties and roots in the area. He has done well in recruiting so far. He has a defensive background and should have a pretty solid unit. But it has been seven years since he was last a head coach. We will see how he adjusts.

Rutgers

1. Cellar dwellers?Many fans have taken umbrage with the preseason media poll, which featured Rutgers coming in at No. 8. There is talent at Rutgers, but the big question is whether it can all come together. Is Frank Cignetti the guy to get the talent on offense maximized to its potential? Will the scheme he brings in translate to better offensive line play? Have all the position changes on defense shored up a unit that was shaky at times in 2010? Greg Schiano has done a lot this offseason to try to improve this team. Now we get to see whether his changes work.

2. Savon Huggins. Admit it. You want to know as badly as I do whether Huggins is as good as advertised. He has been in school since June, but we finally get our first glimpse of him on the practice field Friday. Expectations are high for him to emerge as the starter right out of the gate.

Syracuse

1. How does the team handle success? Syracuse made a bowl game in 2010 for the first time since 2004. So how does a team so used to losing all of a sudden handle winning? It the bowl game something that Syracuse can use to build momentum, or are players going to feel pressure to sustain the success they had last season? Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones believes the bowl game was the confidence booster this program needed. We will see how much more confident Syracuse plays this season.

2. Who are the linebackers?A position of strength has turned into a position of question this season with the loss of senior leaders Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue, who were also the team's top two tacklers. Marquis Spruill moves to middle linebacker and has starting experience, but that is about it. Syracuse is looking at true freshman Dyshawn Davis potentially starting at one spot. At the other, Dan Vaughan has playing experience at least but not much starting experience. Behind them there is little experience as well.

West Virginia

1. The Holgorsen Era begins. How will Dana Holgorsen do in Year 1 as a head coach? The coaches apparently do not think much of the increased expectations many others have with him in charge, as West Virginia goes into the season unranked in that poll. Is too much being made of his ability to turn average Joes into incredible supernatural talents? He has made stars everywhere he has been, so why expect anything less now?

2. Who emerges at running back?This has to be one of the most popular questions I get in the mailbags and on the weekly chats. West Virginia has a crop of talented backs, most notably freshmen Vernard Roberts, Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison. Not to mention Shawne Alston and Trey Johnson. With so many options, it will be interesting to see how Holgorsen divides up the workload and whether he decides to redshirt one of his first-year players.
We continue our team position rankings with the linebackers. This position was one of the hardest hit in the league with the number of quality players who are gone. You could probably interchange teams 2-7 in the rankings, depending on your point of view. So who is going to step up? Let's peer into the crystal ball.

[+] EnlargeSam Barrington
Kim Klement/US PresswireSouth Florida linebacker Sam Barrington, 36, leads the Big East's best group of linebackers.
1. South Florida. Sam Barrington and DeDe Lattimore form the best linebacking duo in the league, helping put the Bulls into the top spot. By no means have they fully arrived -- plenty of room for improvement here. What also helps with the ranking is depth. Reshard Cliett had a nice spring, after coming into USF as a safety. Junior college transfer Mike Juene was in for spring and also has raised expectations. Mike Lanaris and Curtis Weatherspoon should be important contributors as well.

2. Connecticut. The strength of the team is on defense, but if there is one group on this unit that has the biggest questions it is linebacker. There is no disputing Sio Moore is one of the best in the league. But the Huskies lost four-year starters Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus. Jory Johnson, Jerome Williams, Mike Osiecki and Yawin Smallwood are all in the mix, but there is no question this group is much more inexperienced than a year ago. Still, Moore makes this a top-tier group.

3. Louisville. The Cardinals lose Brandon Heath and a few other players who brought valuable experience. But Daniel Brown and Dexter Heyman are experienced starters who will anchor this unit. The Cardinals took a hit when Brandon Golson reportedly decided to transfer, so they are going to need to work on some depth.

4. Rutgers. Some players moved around during the spring -- Manny Abreu moved from strongside linebacker to defensive end, and Khaseem Greene moved from safety to weakside linebacker. These moves should make the defense better. Steve Beauharnais switched back to the strong side from the middle, a move that should benefit him. Ka'Lial Glaud is now penciled in to start in the middle. Marvin Booker had a good spring as well. Depth is an issue and true freshman Quentin Gause and Kevin Snyder could play. But this group should be better.

5. West Virginia. Najee Goode is a proven big-time player, but there were some huge losses for this unit. Anthony Leonard, JT Thomas and Pat Lazear are all gone. Junior college transfer Josh Francis and Casey Vance are competing on the weakside and Doug Rigg, Tyler Anderson and Donovan Miles on the strong side. Francis would add athleticism to the group, but first he has to win the starting job.

6. Pittsburgh. The Panthers are transitioning to a 3-4 and experimented plenty during the spring with various combinations. They have experience, with the top seven linebackers on the team returning. Plus Brandon Lindsey is going to play more of a hybrid defensive end/linebacker role. But this was one of the worst units on the team last season. Max Gruder and Greg Williams have to be better for this unit to be ranked higher.

7. Syracuse. The Orange lose not only two of their best players, but two of their biggest leaders in Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith. Smith led the team in tackles, and Hogue was right behind him, making linebacker one of the biggest question marks on this team heading into the season. Two other contributors, Malcolm Cater and Brice Hawkes, were kicked off the team. That leaves sophmore Marquis Spruill as the only player with significant playing time among the linebackers, and he moved to a new position in the middle. Early enrollee Dyshawn Davis, a receiver in high school, is penciled in to start so that should tell you where this group is headed into the fall.

8. Cincinnati. JK Schaffer is one of the best in the Big East, but depth here is a concern. Walter Stewart has moved to defensive end, leaving a hole at one of the linebacker spots. True freshmen Nick Temple and Dwight Jackson were in for spring practice are expected to compete for starting jobs. This unit was not very good last year and undersized, making it the group with the most to prove in 2011.

Previous rankings

Big East impact true freshmen

June, 23, 2011
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Colleague Bruce Feldman has a new blog post ranking his Top 10 impact true freshmen. Insider Two are from the Big East, and should come as little surprise.

Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater comes in at No. 5 and Rutgers running back Savon Huggins ranks right behind at No. 6. Here is what Feldman has to say about them.
On Bridgewater: Landing the Miami native was quite a coup for Charlie Strong. Bridgewater arrived in time for the spring and battled for the job vacated by Adam Froman and Justin Burke. His only challenger is 5-foot-10 former walk-on Will Stein. ... Given the Cards' inexperience on the offensive line, Bridgewater's playmaking skills and mobility only figure to be that much more valuable this fall.

On Huggins: Greg Schiano needs a big-time back to emerge, and the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Huggins has the kind of "lets-get-to-business" running style the coach likes. The book on Huggins is that he doesn't waste time, he just attacks the hole and has the burst to get through, and can finish off his runs. For a program that has struggled in the running game since Ray Rice left for the NFL after the 2007 season (finishing 80th, 78th and 110th in the last three seasons), Huggins' arrival is a welcome one.

How about candidates for the other Big East schools?

Marquise Vann and Jefferson Ashiru, Connecticut. Linebacker is the biggest question on defense after the Huskies lost two starters in Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus. Vann and Ashiru were two of the most highly touted in the signing class in February and should have a chance to contribute immediately.

Nick Temple/Dwight Jackson, Cincinnati. The Bearcats have the potential to have a handful of impact true freshmen. Jameel Poteat, Shaq Washington and Akise Teague could have filled in this spot here. But I am going with the linebacker tandem of Temple and Jackson because the Bearcats are in need of help on defense more than offense. With Walter Stewart moving to the hybrid defensive end/linebacker spot, Cincinnati really needs one of its freshmen to step up at linebacker.

Ejuan Price, Pittsburgh. The Panthers landed a pretty explosive player in Price, who came to Pittsburgh after being granted his release from Ohio State. Price seems to be the perfect fit for the 3-4, and will no doubt compete for playing time at the "Panther linebacker" spot as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end.

Elkino Watson, USF. The four-star defensive tackle prospect was perhaps the biggest coup for the Bulls on signing day, when he chose USF over Miami. He will have a chance to play immediately and help the USF defensive line.

Dyshawn Davis, Syracuse. Davis enrolled in school early and ended the spring atop the depth chart at weakside linebacker. This is one of the biggest question marks for the Orange, so it makes the most sense for Davis to have the biggest impact here.

Andrew Buie/Vernard Roberts/Dustin Garrison, West Virginia. Yes, I am a weasel for not picking one of these players. Easy way out for sure. But I have to honestly say I am not sure which of these players is going to emerge, and I am pretty sure the coaches have no idea, either. But I do think one of these guys is going to come out and make an impact. No question this is going to be one of the most fun competitions to watch during fall practice.

Thoughts from Syracuse practice

April, 12, 2011
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Some observations after attending Syracuse's 13th practice of the spring on Tuesday (if there are any typos, it's because I spilled Dinosaur Bar-B-Que sauce on my keyboard):

  • With the spring game on tap Saturday, the Orange did quite a bit of scrimmage work in a somewhat-abbreviated practice. The defense had the upper hand at last weekend's scrimmage and kept that going on Tuesday. The offense did well in some short-yardage work, but the defense dominated in goal-line and two-minute drills. That's notable, given that the offense returns far more starters than its relatively young counterparts on the other side of the ball. Doug Marrone said the offense had "some lingering bad taste" from Saturday's performance.
  • Of course, the offense might have had a better day if Marcus Sales had caught a ball that deflected off his hands on fourth-and-10 from about midfield in the two-minute work. Sales said afterward that he would have caught that in a game. And the best news, at least for the offense, is that he was able to get behind the defense in such an obvious passing situation.
  • Sales looked good the rest of the practice and seems to be carrying over his big Pinstripe Bowl performance. The receivers have a little more depth with him, Alec Lemon and Van Chew, who isn't fully healthy yet. Jarrod West looks like he can be a solid possession receiver. Dorian Graham is fast but still has trouble catching the ball.
  • You don't hear much anymore about a quarterback competition. Ryan Nassib is the obvious starter and showed some nice skill in a couple of play-action bootleg passes to tight end Nick Provo. Nassib probably isn't going to wow you, but he's solid and there's no one really pushing him for playing time right now. Charley Loeb wold be the backup if the season started today.
  • Antwon Bailey showed some nice moves as Syracuse really focused on running the ball during most of the scrimmage portions. He got around the corner a couple of times and flashed good shiftiness between the tackles. I have questioned whether or not the 5-foot-8 Bailey could hold up as an every-down back, but hey, Noel Devine and Dion Lewis have done it in this league. Prince-Tyson Gulley is also coming on. He had maybe the play of the day by the offense when he juked Jeremi Wilkes out of his shoes on a pitch play.
  • True freshman Dyshawn Davis is currently running first-string at linebacker. Coach Dan Conley spent time giving Davis a lot of extra instruction. Syracuse could be awfully young at linebacker with Davis and true sophomore Marquis Spruill in the middle. Senior Dan Vaughan is trying to hold on to a starting job at the other spot and would give the Orange some experience.
  • The other big question mark on defense is at the interior line spots. Cory Boatman (256 pounds) and Jay Bromley (273) were manning that position with the first unit on Tuesday. While they had success against a veteran line, they are still undersized for those spots. Marrone said the defensive tackle position probably would be filled by committee this season.
  • Overall thoughts: The Orange are well-stocked on the offensive line, at defensive end and at safety and will have a veteran quarterback and some potential playmakers at running back. They will need the young guys at linebacker and defensive tackle to really come on, and for the passing game to improve over last year. But it's not unrealistic to consider them a Big East contender in 2011.

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