Football

5 questions surrounding Syracuse in 2012 season

Andrew Renneisen | Photo Editor

Ashton Broyld (center) can bring a much-needed big play threat to the Syracuse offense at running back. However, no SU ballcarrier has stood out to coaches as the team heads into its opener.

1. Who will emerge as a playmaker for the Orange?

Head coach Doug Marrone has harped on the need for his team to make big plays since the spring. It’s been a focus through preseason camp. Now, it comes down to who will step up to make those plays to open up the offense. Coming out of camp, though, few players stood out as possibilities to fill that role.

He also said the wide receiver position struggled. Top returning receiver Alec Lemon, who caught 68 passes last season, was limited during the preseason due to a shoulder injury, and Marrone wasn’t blown away by his options to start alongside Lemon. Marcus Sales provides a veteran presence and has shown flashes of his ability in his first three seasons. Wide receivers coach Rob Moore said he saw some good things from Sales during camp, but he also needs to be more consistent, as does the rest of the unit.

Marrone said he expects freshman Ashton Broyld to see time, but the freshman, who will play running back and take snaps in the wildcat formation, has a lot to prove before he can be considered the answer to the Orange’s need for big plays.

2. Who will separate himself as the team’s primary running back?

Jerome Smith earned the starting job when Marrone released his two-deep depth chart for the opener last Saturday. But the head coach said all camp that no one had emerged as a go-to back.

Smith goes into the season with limited game experience. Last year, he stepped in as the backup after Prince-Tyson Gulley suffered a broken collarbone after four games. But he only carried the ball 37 times for 134 yards, so he will be tested if he does take the bulk of the carries eventually.

Gulley is listed as the backup, and Marrone said he had a good camp. Broyld, Adonis Ameen-Moore and Devante McFarlane, a late addition to the competition in camp, all remain in the mix for carries, too.

The Orange will need to find the right combination of backs, or one will have to separate himself during the season. Right now, the position is surrounded by uncertainty.

3. Will an inexperienced offensive line develop?

The offensive line must replace two starters who graduated and another who will miss the start of the season due to injury. Justin Pugh, a first-team All-Big East selection in 2011, is still working back from off-season shoulder surgery, leaving a hole at left tackle. The right guard and right tackle spots will also have new starters due to Michael Hay and Andrew Tiller’s graduations.

Macky MacPherson and left guard Zack Chibane provide some stability on the line. The Orange ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big East in sacks allowed in 2011, giving up 29. With three new starters going into the season, the position is an area of concern for Marrone.

Sean Hickey has impressed the coaching staff during preseason camp, and he will start the season at left tackle. But Lou Alexander, Ivan Foy and Rob Trudo – all possible starters on the right side – remain unproven.

For SU to generate more points this season and take chances downfield, the line will need to give quarterback Ryan Nassib time in the pocket.

4. Will the defense improve after finishing last season among the worst in the Big East?

The Syracuse defense finished last in total and scoring defense in the Big East. The Orange also recorded the fewest sacks with 28 and allowed more than 120 rushing yards per game.

The unit must improve while also trying to replace NFL first-round pick Chandler Jones, who is now with the New England Patriots. SU returns both starting tackles in Jay Bromley and Deon Goggins, while JUCO transfer Markus Pierce-Brewster and senior Brandon Sharpe line up at the end positions.

At linebacker, Marquis Spruill is shifting to the outside and will play alongside middle linebacker Siriki Diabate and weak-side linebacker Dyshawn Davis. Dan Vaughan, who started on the outside last season, provides experience and depth to the unit.

The secondary has been working with first-year coach Donnie Henderson to improve its playmaking ability. Shamarko Thomas provides a veteran presence at strong safety, as does cornerback Ri’Shard Anderson.

Each group will need to gel for the defense to improve on its lackluster 2011 performance.

5. Can Syracuse compete in the conference?

The Orange has one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the nation this year. Northwestern has been to four straight bowl games under head coach Pat Fitzgerald and will provide a stiff test in the season opener. SU then takes on a national title favorite in No. 1 Southern California and Heisman candidate Matt Barkley. A road matchup with another Big Ten opponent, Minnesota, won’t be easy despite the Gophers’ recent struggles. Then SU caps its nonconference schedule at Southeastern Conference opponent Missouri in November.

The challenging nonconference schedule makes the Orange’s performance within the Big East crucial if it hopes to return to a bowl game. But SU went a dismal 1-6 in the conference in 2011, and it goes into the season tabbed to finish seventh in the preseason media poll. Another finish at the bottom of the Big East would seal another losing campaign.

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