Syracuse football has nowhere to go but up
By JOHN KEKIS
The Assocaited Press
SYRACUSE — Syracuse’s Dino Babers is in uncharted territory as he prepares for his seventh season as a head coach. So far, he likes what he sees.
“This is the first time I’ve ever had a Year 3 anywhere,” said Babers, whose first two head coaching jobs were two-year stints at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green. “I think everybody’s headed in the right direction. I think there’s more of our type of guys (here) than before and I think it’s going to pay off for us in the long run.”
Year 3 holds the promise to be different. Syracuse has finished 4-8 three straight times with Eric Dungey at quarterback, partly because he’s missed the final three games of each season with injuries. The 6-foot-3, 232-pound Dungey is back for his final year, and it’s make-or-break because he has aspirations to keep playing after college.
A dual threat and the key to Babers’ fast-paced offense — the Orange averaged a play every 21 seconds last season — Dungey is the only active FBS quarterback with 6,000 career passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards.
“I’m really trying to make the most of this last season. I’m trying to leave a legacy,” Dungey said.
What helps make this team different is Dungey’s backup, redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito. On paper, DeVito is a big upgrade from previous years — he was an Under Armour All-American in high school and passed for 3,800 yards and 35 TDs — and has benefited from Dungey’s last injury. DeVito was taking a share of the first-team reps in preseason camp, a continuation of his role in spring ball.
Although Dungey did see action in the spring as he continued to recover from a broken foot, he also focused on getting a firmer grasp of the offense and expects this year to be different health-wise. While he was in there last fall, he averaged 343.3 yards offensively per game, sixth in the nation.
“Last year was kind of a freak accident,” said Dungey, who also has suffered head injuries (at least one concussion) that have sent him to the sideline. “Obviously, I’ve got to be smarter with the ball, but you never can try to avoid injuries. Injuries happen.”
Other things to know about the Syracuse Orange prior to the season opener at Western Michigan on Aug. 31:
— O-LINE EXPERTISE: The Orange offensive line boasts 100 career starts, third in the ACC. That’s the most experienced group in nearly three decades at Syracuse and good news for a team that averaged just 4 yards per carry in 2017.
— WHO’LL BE THE NEXT IN LINE?: Babers’ offense has produced unexpected stars and he expects the trend to continue. Among the candidates are elusive kick returner Sean Riley, who’s slated to start at slotback, and redshirt senior Jamal Custis. Babers said the 6-5 Custis was the best receiver in camp two years ago before suffering a high ankle sprain. Last year, Steve Ishmael emerged to set a school record for receptions with 105 (1,347 yards).
“It’s going to be interesting to see what surfaces to the top,” Babers said. “We’re going to have some guys that surprise us. They’re going to come from nowhere, they always have.”
— LINEBACKER LEGACY: Syracuse lost its two best linebackers — Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett combined for 200 tackles and 31 sacks last year — to graduation, but strongside LB Kielan Whitner thinks the legacy they left will have an effect.
“I feel like it’s going to be different this year,” said Whitner, who played both linebacker and safety last year. “Those guys laid a foundation for us.”
The defense had seven sacks and forced three turnovers in the first preseason scrimmage and safety Antwan Cordy had one of the picks. Cordy has missed most of the last two seasons with injuries.
— WINNABLE GAMES: The new schedule has some very winnable games that will give Syracuse an excellent chance to reach six wins, with Wagner and UConn among the opponents at home.
But there’s a potential trap game in the opener against Western Michigan. Former Syracuse quarterbacks coach Tim Lester, who mentored Dungey, is head coach of the Broncos.
Last year, Babers’ predecessor, Scott Shafer, pulled off an upset in the Carrier Dome in his first season as defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee and the 41-year-old Lester coached under Shafer.
— NOVEMBER BLUES: Babers is 0-8 in November, continuing a trend that started under Shafer, whose teams went 1-7 in the month his last two seasons. That has to change for the Orange to qualify for the postseason.
“November is really what we’re looking forward to,” senior tailback Dontae Strickland said. “We’ve got to have a better outcome.”
— OPENER: The Orange open the season at Western Michigan on Aug. 31.