Football

Class of their own: NFL Draft presents final step in seniors’ effort to restore Syracuse’s legitimacy

Sam Maller | Asst. Photo Editor

The drive from Syracuse to Philadelphia is easy, but long. It takes about four hours — four hours Ryan Nassib and Justin Pugh spent together in a car driving home in the four summers of their Syracuse careers. Four hours down, four hours back.

Among the trees and open highway, there’s not much to do. They could listen to music, but most of the time, they just talk.

A lot comes up on those car rides — school, football — but rarely the NFL Draft. Even as recently as last summer, that seemed almost a pipe dream. Pugh was injured, Nassib off the radar.

First round? Maybe second, if at all.

“I was more thinking about trying to get back, maybe come back for my fifth year,” Pugh said. “And going into the season, nobody gave Ryan any respect.”

“It all just sort of showed up”

Nassib, Pugh, Alec Lemon and Shamarko Thomas shouldn’t be in this position, ready to be drafted. The Class of 2009 — which consisted of Lemon, Thomas, Pugh and Andrew Tiller, who was drafted a year ago — ranked No. 102 out of 120 recruiting classes, right behind Ball State and just ahead of Utah State. Nassib came in the year before, but he wouldn’t have helped. He was just a two-star himself.

Yet, here they are. Nassib and Pugh, the quarterback and his left tackle, could be first-rounders. The safety Thomas and Lemon, a wide receiver, will likely get chosen some time during the weekend.

Not bad for No. 102.

“I remember people saying when I committed to Syracuse that they were giving Division-I scholarships to kids who didn’t have Division-I talent,” Pugh said.

In their final season, Lemon, Thomas, Pugh and the other 11 players who made up the Big East’s worst recruiting class climbed atop the conference.

Syracuse went 21-17 in the past three years and won six of its last seven games. At least four players are headed to the NFL. They brought home two Pinstripe Bowl trophies in three years and a share of the Big East title in SU’s last year in the conference.

Syracuse’s seniors and former head coach Doug Marrone went from nobodies to hot commodities.

Marrone became the Buffalo Bills’ head coach in early January. On Thursday night, the draft will begin and Nassib, Lemon, Thomas and Pugh will follow Marrone to the NFL.

“It all just sort of showed up one day,” Nassib said.

The quarterback

Jon Gruden knows quarterbacks.

The ESPN analyst and former Super Bowl-winning head coach hosts a “QB Camp” segment on the network in the weeks leading up to the draft. Nassib was one of nine quarterbacks Gruden invited onto the show.

They chatted for about four and a half hours, but to Nassib, it felt like 10 minutes.

“He’s a football guy, just like me,” Nassib said. “He’s a football junkie and I love talking to guys like that.”

Gruden has since declared Nassib his favorite quarterback. Todd McShay projects him as the No. 8 overall pick to the Bills. In a down year at the position, no quarterback was mentioned more during NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock’s and Gruden’s pre-draft teleconferences.

“I love his intelligence,” Mayock raved. “I love his passion for the game of football.”

“He’s an athletic kid, he’s functioned in a bunch of different offenses,” Gruden gushed.

Nassib likes to avoid the speculation, but he can’t avoid it. Anytime he turns on “SportsCenter,” there it is.

Nassib isn’t a part of that Class of 2009, but he was just as unheralded as the rest.

An under-the-radar recruit coming out of high school, Nassib, like much of the Syracuse roster, felt slighted. It’s been a driving factor in his career, that constant desire to prove himself.

When he arrived at SU, he had two goals: First, start by his sophomore year. Second, get drafted.

“I always had my team goals first,” Nassib said. “In the back of my mind, I always had the goal of getting drafted driving me.”

New perceptions

The program once known for Jim Brown and Ernie Davis, for national titles and Heisman Trophies, for the No. 44 and Ben Schwartzwalder, became known for mediocrity — for the embarrassment of the Greg Robinson era and empty Carrier Dome bleachers.

The Class of 2009 fit in with that new perception.

“When people would ask where we were going and we would say ‘Syracuse,’ they would kind of laugh,” Lemon said.

“Was that your worst offer?” people would respond.

For many, it was their best.

“They figured, ‘If Syracuse is their best offer, they must not be that good,’” Lemon said.

Lemon was one of just two three-star recruits that year, but that class helped guide the Orange to its first bowl win since 2001.

The perception is new again.

“People know what we’re all about now,” Lemon said, “and they know that we’re winners.”

If Nassib and Pugh both go in the first round, that will make it three first-round picks in two years for the Orange. In four years, SU transformed from a program without direction, stuck in mediocrity, into one on the rise.

During his sophomore year, Pugh made a pledge with Chandler Jones. The close friends promised they both would get drafted in the first round.

Jones upheld his end of the bargain — the defensive end was a first-round pick by the New England Patriots a year ago. Now, it’s Pugh’s turn.

If he does, it will mark the first time since 2002 that Syracuse has had a first-round pick in back-to-back NFL Drafts.

“It’s just kind of a whole other step in our goal to turn the perspective of Syracuse football around,” Nassib said.

A tight-knit group

Scouts come to Syracuse for private workouts with Pugh all the time — he missed the beginning of SU’s Spring Game because of one.

But the visits aren’t just for him. Zack Chibane is also working for the NFL Draft. He took part in SU’s Pro Day, and when scouts come to watch Pugh, he makes sure they check out Chibane, too.

“Every team that would call me and would come in, I would make sure I was like, ‘Hey, look, my buddy’s also an offensive lineman,’” Pugh said.

Chibane’s draft hopes and NFL dreams are more of a long shot than Pugh’s, Nassib’s, Thomas’ or Lemon’s, but as another member of that Class of 2009, he helped change Syracuse football.

Fifteen players worked out at Syracuse’s Pro Day in early March. Most won’t get drafted and might not even get signed as undrafted free agents. But all played at least some role in Syracuse’s incredible turnaround.

Sixteen members of the Orange’s senior class were back in Syracuse last Friday to be honored at SU’s senior banquet. It was a final hurrah for a class that watched Syracuse at its lowest, that carried it to its new high.

They chatted about all getting drafted by the same team, getting another chance to play together. They know it won’t happen. The goodbyes were emotional — between each other and to the era that helped restore Syracuse to respectability.

“It’s something that makes you proud,” Pugh said. “It’s something that me and the guys will be able to remember down the road when we come back for games and are washed-up alumnus.”

The bright lights

A week before the draft, Nassib still wasn’t sure where he was watching it. Lemon, Thomas and Pugh are all at home. None landed an invite.

Like they spent most of their careers, Syracuse’s stars will be out of the national eye, in the shadows and away from the bright lights when their names are called this weekend.

Nassib and Pugh finally talk about the draft now. After four years of driving four hours back and forth between Syracuse and Philadelphia, it’s no longer just a pipe dream, but an inevitability. This weekend, that shared but unspoken dream will become a reality.

“We’ve been together here working out, hanging out,” Nassib said, “and it’s really been a fun time with all those guys.

“It’s an exciting time. It’s been a long process and it’s fun to see a little light at the end of the tunnel.”

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