Football

Babers talks improving player retention, analyzes No. 20 Pitt’s performance

Elizabeth Billman | Senior Staff Photographer

In his final midweek press conference of the season, Babers discussed the importance of senior day ahead of the Orange’s final home game.

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Coming off two straight blowout losses to ranked opponents, Syracuse will need to pull off one of its biggest upsets of the season against No. 20 Pittsburgh to become bowl-eligible on Saturday.

In his final midweek press conference of the season, Babers discussed the importance of senior day ahead of the Orange’s final home game. He pointed out Pitt’s rushing defense, which allows under 100 yards per game. 

This is a doggone good football team that’s gonna have an opportunity to play in the title game in the ACC and they definitely deserve it,” Babers said. “We’re looking forward to the contest, it’ll be our last contest in the Dome, (but) hopefully not our last contest in 2021.”

Here are four takeaways from Babers’ weekly press conference ahead of SU’s must-win game against Pittsburgh:

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Pickett, Addison, run defense and No. 20 Pitt

Babers called Kenny Pickett the best quarterback in the Atlantic Coast and a No. 1 NFL draft pick. Babers complimented Pickett’s “unbelievable” throwing accuracy, the development he’s made over the past season and his unexpected elusiveness. 

The Pitt quarterback isn’t comparable to the likes of Florida State’s Jordan Travis or Louisville’s Malik Cunningham, Babers explained, but he’s still elusive enough to make the first man miss, much like NC State’s Devin Leary. Pickett is a player that’s able to stand in the pocket and deliver throws under pressure by keeping his eyes downfield. 

“He is a really, really good NFL prospect,” Babers said.

Beyond Pickett, the Panthers have an elite wide receiver in Jordan Addison, who’s eclipsed 1,200 receiving yards. He said the most comparable opponent this season was Clemson, and the Orange didn’t rotate their defensive backs around for that game. 

Babers brought up Pitt alum Larry Fitzgerald, who was there in 2003 when Babers was the Panthers’ running backs coach. Fitzgerald caught passes when there were double-teams, and even got looks from the quarterback when he was triple-teamed, Babers said. 

“It all depends on how good we really think that guy is, and I think he’s good,” Babers said of Addison. “But we gotta decide whether he’s Larry Fitzgerald-good.”

And as for Pitt’s run defense, which currently ranks the best in the conference and No. 9 nationally, Babers said SU will just have to stick to what it does best.

“It’s almost like telling Mike Tyson, ‘Don’t be a brawler, be a jabber, be a boxer,’” Babers said. “There’s certain things you need to do if you’re good at it, and you gotta see if you can still do it.”

Looking forward to next year

Babers said that fullback Chris Elmore will not play on Saturday against Pittsburgh, but that the super senior has decided to redshirt this year and will return for his sixth season next year. 

For the juniors, Babers said he asked them during the team’s meeting to experience the team’s “senior walk” this weekend if they’ve decided they won’t return next season. There might be other players who are redshirt sophomores, or sophomores in eligibility, who are playing their last season too since they might already have their degree, he added. He declined to specify how many such juniors or sophomores won’t return, but said “you’ll be able to see them if they’re walking.”

Babers was asked if he speaks to players like Sean Tucker differently to ensure that they don’t enter the transfer portal, or if his message has changed to try and improve player retention.

“I don’t think I need to change my message, I think I need to cultivate more people to feel the way that I do,” Babers said. 

“I like having conversations with the guys, and I like to know what’s going on with them,” he continued later. “But if you’re really trying to keep somebody here for reasons other than they really want to be somewhere, you’re probably asking for trouble in the first place.”

There is an adjustment on recruiting players who will be more willing to stay in the program, he said, because teams who return more players won’t have to retrain as many year-by-year.

Babers said Garrett Shrader would be the starter next season since he’s finishing this season as the starter, and added that he expects the rushing attack to further improve during the offseason.

Evaluating this season’s success

Babers didn’t answer a question about whether he had done enough to keep his job next year. He simply stated that he’s controlled what he can control. He said good coaches get both hired and fired, but really good coaches are the ones that get re-hired.

My job belongs to my employer, my career belongs to me,” Babers said.

He said he was on the “hot seat” at the start of the season and knew the team wasn’t expected to win more than three games. He said he read all the articles that were published, and watched everyone’s expectations change as the season went on.

“Our expectations never changed,” he said. The team’s goals didn’t change either, though Babers declined to specify what those goals were. 

“Based off of what people really thought we were going to get done, we’ve overshot their things, totally,” Babers said. “I love proving people wrong. Now we’ve got an opportunity to really prove them wrong, but we got a really good opponent, so we’re going to have to see.”

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