Syracuse begins spring football; nowhere to go but up
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By JOHN KEKIS
Dino Babers is starting the most important year of his tenure at Syracuse. With only one winning season under his belt in six years, there's pressure to get it right again.
Two days into spring camp, things are in high gear and there's been lots of change.
"There's been some change, which is good," Babers said Monday after practice. "New ideas out there. Those guys are grabbing it very, very quickly. They're learning new stuff. I think so far, so good. It's only the second day out, but they're going to get better."
Syracuse was one win shy of securing a bowl game berth last season with three games left on the schedule and lost all three to finish at 5-7 overall and 2-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference for the fourth time in Babers' tenure. That left his Syracuse record at 29-43, 15-35 in the ACC.
The stumble to the finish prompted a revamping of the staff in late December. Babers fired offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and brought in Robert Anae from Virginia to take his place. Syracuse also hired former Virginia quarterbacks coach Jason Beck after the sudden resignation of head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Virginia finished 2021 ranked third nationally in total offense behind quarterback Brennan Armstrong with an average of 515.8 yards. Syracuse averaged just 366.5 yards per game, 213.5 of that on the ground, relying an awful lot on the running prowess of tailback Sean Tucker (1,496) and quarterback Garrett Shrader (781). The duo combined to score all but two of the Orange's 28 rushing touchdowns.
Two-year starter Tommy DeVito, a dropback passer who was replaced by Shrader after three games, transferred to Illinois, and the Orange landed quarterback Dan Villari from Michigan via the transfer portal, giving Syracuse a second dual threat. At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, Villari is virtually identical in size to Shrader, and though he played sparingly in four games last season for the Wolverines, he gives the Orange a second set of legs at the position.
"You need to have two, just in case something happens if you want to stay the same, so it'll be a positive," Babers said. "You get to do the same offense over and over and over again. (Villari's) been good. He's been learning a new thing as well, but to have a big old strapping guy back there that can do some things, it's going to be awesome."
In December 2018, after the Orange won 10 games and finished the season ranked No. 15, Syracuse gave Babers a contract extension. It's been a struggle since the departure of record-setting quarterback Eric Dungey after that season and the pandemic-plagued 2020 campaign was not kind. Beset by injuries, Syracuse finshed 1-10 and 1-9 in the conference.
Lots of hard work looms in the effort to get the program back on track.
"This is going to be a physical spring," Babers said. "Our numbers are higher than they've ever been thanks to COVID and all the other things that go along with the transfer portal and name, image and likeness, all those things. We've got some big numbers and want to make sure that it's a very, very taxing spring."
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Updated March 8, 2022