Football

Cornelius emerges as starting wideout with blocking prowess

Alvin Cornelius was surprised when he found out he was going to start against Florida State.

“Jarrod (West) had texted me and told me they were going to need me this game and I just thought maybe I was going to get in the rotation more,” Cornelius said.

Syracuse’s slew of options opposite the No. 1 wide receiver West run the gamut from ineffective to inconsistent. Only when the Orange was able to move H-back Ashton Broyld out wide did it get any explosiveness out of the position.

An injury to Brisly Estime, though, slid Broyld back inside and meant SU needed to go back to one of its old options or find a new one.

The passing game has been nonexistent for the better part of the past two months. Weapons out wide have essentially been rendered obsolete.

Wide receivers coach Rob Moore decided to try something different. Cornelius got the call for his first start against No. 2 Florida State on Saturday. He wasn’t targeted —quarterback Terrel Hunt threw the ball just 18 times — but he earned universal praise from coaches and teammates for his ability to block defensive backs on the outside.

“He did the intangibles that we needed,” Hunt said.

Cornelius found out that he would get the start just days before SU traveled down to Tallahassee, Fla. He had started getting reps with the first team in the weeks before, but he wasn’t expecting to get a start against the Seminoles.

He had, however, been an integral part of some Syracuse special teams units and had found his way onto the field as a wide receiver in recent weeks. In his brief time on the field, he impressed Moore enough for the coach to expand Cornelius’ role.

“That actually gave me more opportunities,” Cornelius said. “Even though I’m not receiving the ball, other things that I do is contributing to me getting playing time.”

His blocking ability is one of the first things that his teammates and coaches alike praise him for. Hunt talked about it right after the FSU game. Head coach Scott Shafer mentioned it during his teleconference on Tuesday. Christopher Clark said he’s one of the best on the team. Even at Tottenville (N.Y.) High School, his head coach Jim Munson said Cornelius was one of the best blockers in the area.

There’s nothing special that Cornelius does — it all comes down to technique, he said. And if he perfects his technique, then his role as a pass catcher will expand, too.

During the preseason, the wide receivers corps adopted a slogan to set the tone for their season.

“No block, no rock.”

“In order for us to get the rock,” Cornelius said, “we’re going to have to block.”

And for the Orange that’s especially crucial. More than most teams, SU needs its running game to set up the passing game. Hunt isn’t yet a strong enough signal-caller for the offense to revolve around him — it has to center on Jerome Smith and Syracuse’s running backs.

When those backs get to the outside, Cornelius and Co. need to make sure they can get to the second level. That will open up holes in the passing game and more opportunities for the wide receivers to make plays.

“Before you make big plays, you’ve got to make other big plays,” Cornelius said. “And blocking is a big play for me and it is for the team.”

With inexperience abound at wide receiver and quarterback, it was clear from Day 1 that the running backs would carry Syracuse.

So the wide receivers had to talk about something that most don’t think of as a first responsibility: blocking.

“He’s really put a lot of emphasis on getting those guys to block and getting them to buy in, to be team players,” offensive coordinator George McDonald said. “Everybody wants to go to college and you’re a receiver being recruited you never talk about blocking.”

Right now, that’s probably Cornelius’ greatest strength. Every other No. 2 receiver has had a particular strength as pass-catchers. Cornelius is at his best away from the ball.

“Jeremiah (Kobena) has speed, so when he runs fast routes I just look at him fly past everybody and think I’ve got to do the same thing,” Cornelius said. “Chris (Clark) never really drops a ball.”

But what about Syracuse’s newest starter?

“I still have to figure that out.”

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