Football

Iseman: Syracuse in good position heading into 1st season in ACC

Five weeks ago, Syracuse faced a language barrier. A new coaching staff meant new faces, new principles on both sides of the ball, new terminology and new wrinkles in offensive and defensive systems. Players who had mastered the playbook under the old regime faced a new challenge that would last through much of the spring season.

But what started five weeks ago ended on Saturday in the Orange’s Spring Game. The Orange team — the starters — beat the Blue team 27-10, led by the arm of Terrel Hunt and the legs of a running back corps looking to power Syracuse once again. There was nothing sensational about either team, but there was enough to show that the Orange is heading in the right direction going into the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Despite the changes with the coaching staff, despite losing a record-breaking quarterback and his go-to wide receiver, Syracuse is in a good spot. What was new five weeks ago has now become normal for the Orange.

“I think the biggest thing is we’ve been working toward the language barriers, the nomenclature, the different terms in the offense and the defense,” head coach Scott Shafer said. “We kind of ironed that out after our first four or five practices, and then I started to feel a little bit more comfortable with the kids speaking the same language.”

Soon enough, there will be even more players who will need to learn that same language. When the rest of Syracuse’s recruiting class arrives — something Shafer said he’s excited for — it will only bolster the roster further and increase the competition at several positions. In turn, those competitions will continue to drive the team through training camp. There’s been no lack of intensity through spring practices, no lack of aggressiveness.

Perhaps not having a starting quarterback is best for Syracuse. The Orange lost Ryan Nassib to graduation after he finished a record-breaking season, capped with a Pinstripe Bowl victory. Nassib might be a first-round pick in this week’s NFL Draft. Syracuse has to replace him. It’s created a competition that has no conclusion in sight quite yet.

Hunt was impressive on Saturday. He’s seen action in one game in his collegiate career, but looked poised in the Spring Game. He unleashed a beautiful, 49-yard touchdown pass to Jarrod West down the left sideline. Hunt finished the game 19-for-29 and threw for 209 yards.

His competitors, John Kinder and Charley Loeb, both went 11-for-20 and threw for 55 yards combined. They didn’t get as many snaps, but they got enough to prove Hunt has the edge in the quarterback competition. And when Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen arrives this summer, followed by incoming freshmen Austin Wilson and Mitch Kimble, that competition will only get more intense.

“My work’s not finished. It was a battle and the battle’s not over because we have another quarterback coming in, two more freshmen,” Hunt said. “I’m not counting anybody out. They’re good for competition. If I’m the frontrunner now, I want to do that all through camp.”

At running back, Jerome Smith looked every bit the barreling, menacing force in the backfield that put Syracuse on his back this past season. Right on his heels, though, was sophomore George Morris II, who didn’t play last year but has left Syracuse fans drooling over his talent and potential in the spring. Add Prince-Tyson Gulley — who missed spring practice after having surgery to repair an upper body injury — to the mix in training camp and the Orange has a lethal, three-headed monster at running back.

On defense, junior college transfer linebacker Josh Kirkland delivered a couple of crushing hits, including one in the fourth quarter that drew a collective “Ooh” from the Carrier Dome crowd. Sophomore cornerback Julian Whigham was all over the place, breaking up passes all afternoon.

There were ample good signs for Syracuse. Of course, these impressive performances didn’t come against Clemson, Florida State or even Georgia Tech. It was in a Spring Game, little more than a highly attended — by Syracuse standards — practice.

But there were enough to show the Orange will be competitive in its new conference. Syracuse’s players have learned the changes ushered in by the new coaching staff, a period of transition that wasn’t necessarily enjoyable in the beginning.

“It’s a little different,” West said. “It’s a little frustrating at first, but then when you start to get it and start to settle in, it’s a lot of fun.”

Syracuse underwent a major transition in these past four months, but it’s been settled these past five weeks. Optimism replaced skepticism and hope replaced worry.

One transition is about completed, while a transition to a new league will begin soon. Syracuse looks poised to overcome that transition with just as much success. 

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