I am going to see if I can get through this entire entry without mentioning an Akron native who tricked us into believing he was a king. Here goes nothing…
When Syracuse takes on Akron on Saturday, it will be trying to win its first season-opener since the OrangeMEN squeezed by UNC 49-47 in 2003. This very well could be the year SU breaks a streak that has stayed in tact through 3 head coaching changes, a fruity name change, and more October snowstorms than October wins (as a Syracuse grad, I can say that sadly, the last one might not be an exaggeration). The Orange defeated the Zips at home last season to even the series at one. Akron infamously beat the ‘Cuse 42-28 in 2008 as “Fire GROB” chants could be heard throughout the scarcely populated Carrier Dome.
Who are the Zips?
Hailing from the great state of Ohio, the Akron Zips are coming off a 3-9 season (2-6 MAC). The Zips are not highly regarded and were picked to finish sixth in the MAC in a recent media poll. Although the Orange has played the Akron twice in the past two years, it could be seeing a very different squad in Ohio this Saturday. Rob Ianello is in his first year as head coach and he has brought a newstaff with him, including former SU offensive coordinator Mitch Browning and former defensive line coach Derrick Jackson. The change in guard along with the lack of publicity the program gets has made it difficult for the Orange to prepare.
Big Story lines
Depth Chart Surprises
Syracuse may turn out to be a new-look team as well (here’s hoping!). There were a few surprises on the depth chart Marrone released on Monday. Hofstra transfer Jose Cruz has shockingly beat out Nick Provo for the starting tight end spot. It was expected that Provo, who played in five games before suffering a season-ending knee injury last season, would get the starting nod. Cruz apparently impressed Marrone, who called the senior “by far the most improved player in this camp.” Cruz played tight end and on special teams for Akron from 2007-08 before transferring to Hofstra.
Another surprise is at the strong safety position, where Max Suter will get the starting nod over Shamarko Thomas. There has been a good amount of buzz about Thomas’ abilities during camp, so the move can definitely be considered unexpected.
At least Thomas and Provo are on the depth chart. The same cannot be said for Marcus Sales, who was left off of it. Syracuse.com’s Nolan Weidner is reporting that Sales still has an opportunity to get on the field against Akron if he steps it up in practice.
There is going to be a rush on pink backpacks (or whatever they’re using for freshman “hazing” these days) on Marshall Street before the Orange takes off later this week. That’s because the freshman class will be well represented in SU’s season opener. Six frosh found themselves on the offensive end of the depth chart: WR Steve Rene, T Sean Hickey, C Macky MacPherson, TE Beckett, QB John Kinder, RB Prince-Tyson Gulley. Gulley will also be the starting kick returner as the Orange looks to get faster and more athletic on special teams. Four freshmen will suit up on defense: LB Marquis Spruill, LB Malcum Cater, LB Brice Hawkes, and CB Jermi Wilkes.
The large number of neophytes on the depth chart is not a shock to the head coach.
“It didn’t surprise me,” Marrone said. “I knew we had some guys that could come in and run, I just wanted to see how they were from a physical and mental standpoint. It is a big difference jumping to college. I’m not surprised at that. I’m excited about it.”
While it is exciting to see some youngins on the depth chart, keep in mind that a younger lineup can also lead to “rookie” mistakes and sloppy football—something SU needs to play less of this season.
Delone Carter returns to the field–and Ohio
It is not a surprise that Mr. Football himself, Delone Carter, will be the Orange’s starting running back when the team travels to his birthplace of Akron on Saturday. Apparently the team’s undisclosed punishment of Carter for his arrest in February has nothing to do with playing time. You may question Marrone’s morals, but SU needs Carter on the field in order to win football games. He paid his price during his six-month suspension, which caused him to miss spring practices. Let the courts take care of the rest.
Nicely gets the starting nod
Originally, Patrick Nicely was supposed to redshirt his freshman season. That plan changed when the Zips suspended and cut Chris Jacquemain and Matt Rodger’s tore his ACL. Nicely racked up 1,349 passing yards, 6 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in his freshman season and beat out Rodgers for the starting spot in camp. Unlike Ryan Nassib, he cannot necessarily say he has the luxury of “having a year under his belt to learn the offense” because of the coaching changes. Ianello has implemented a new “pro-style” offense, which Nicely and the rest of the unit have had to learn. It will be interesting to see how both quarterbacks handle their new roles this Saturday–Nassib debuting as the Orange’s starting QB and Nicely playing with a “pro-style” offense in an actual game for the first time.
Keys to Victory:
An effective running game
Marrone is confidant that Nassib’s completion percentage will improve from last year (he completed 52% of his passes in 2009), but a potent running game should take pressure off the Orange’s new starting quarterback. Marrone plans to run the ball a lot this year, and why wouldn’t he? Delone Carter rushed for 1, 021 yards last year (becoming just the 8th player in Syracuse history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a single season). Add on junior Antwon Bailey (4.7 yards per carry last season) and quick-footed freshman Gulley and you’ve got yourself a solid group of running backs.
SU will need the offensive line to protect and block for its backs. This will be especially important because Akron’s two best tacklers, sophomore Brian Wagner (132 tackles in 2009, 7th best in the country and he was only a freshman) and senior Mike Thomas (81 tackles in 2009), will be a challenge for the Cuse’s running backs. There is a lack of depth and experience on the O-Line, so this is where SU could run into trouble (no pun intended). Ryan Bartholomew is the only returning starter and he is moving from guard to center. Senior guard Adam Rosner is the only reserve with any sort of significant experience. Still, the starting O-Linemen are bigger, stronger, and known for being more aggressive. Look out for redshirt freshman tackle Justin Pugh on Saturday and this season–Marrone thinks this kid is the real deal.
Syracuse committed 27 turnovers in 2009, 10 more than it did during the ’08 campaign. This is an area where having youth and inexperience on the field could hurt the Orange, especially in the first game of the season. The freshman and other players who will see their minutes increase this season may need time to adjust to their roles on the team, which may lead to some growing pains. If Akron can force big turnovers and get the home crowd involved, it can pull off a 2008-esque upset.
SU may not know much about Akron’s offense, but the Zips have never used it in a
game-situation. If the 4-3 defense can push back the line of scrimmage and put pressure on Nicely rush his passes, SU can take the Zips QB mentally out of the game early.
Keep nerves and emotions in check
It sounds cliché, but it’s true–and it won’t be easy. Several players–including freshmen–will start or simply don a Syracuse uniform for the first time. Delone Carter will be playing his first game since his suspension in front of a hometown crowd. Orange fans are fed up with losing and want to see this team go to a bowl–or at least show some signs of life and improvement–this season. If SU loses to the Zips–a non-BCS program that is not expected to do well this season– the fans will grow even more restless. As a result, there is a ton of pressure on this team to go out and do something it has only done 14 times in the past five years: win football games starting with beating Akron. It may be difficult to keep emotions in check with everything surrounding the team, but Syracuse must do this in order to minimize mistakes such as those pesky, costly turnovers.
In an effort to turn nerves into a positive thing for the Orange, Marrone has borrowed an idea from his former head coach, Dick MacPherson. He had each player write down what they were feeling.
“When you sit down to start writing about that, your emotion comes up,” Marrone said. “My main concern going into the first game was how the players were going to deal with the emotion, since we do have a lot of people starting for the first time.”
We will learn if the tactic worked very early in the game. If players have butterfingers, we could be in for a long evening.
SU: 27 Akron: 10
This is a game the Orange should win, despite not having much information on Akron.
- Averin Collier will be allowed to practice with the team this season. Don’t expect to see the Rochester-native in any games, though. He will be sitting out for the season because of academics.
- WR Van Chew, WR Adrian Flemming, and RB Jerome Smith practiced in full pads Tuesday.
- Mr. Football isn’t the only member of the Orange who can eat a home cooked meal this weekend. Gulley, LB Ryan Gillum, LB Lewelly Coker, and LB Michah Robinson also hail from the State LeFraud ditched. (Crap, I was so close, too.)
- At practice, the Orange played offense vs. defense. The winner got to eat steak dinners while the loser had to eat hamburgers and hot dogs. The defense won.
Steak dinners on me if SU finally wins a season opener this Saturday! I will be tweeting during the game. Click here to follow me. I would love to talk SU football with you!
About the Author
Written by Beth Ann Clyde
I graduated from Syracuse University in 2009 and can count the number of times I witnessed the Orange win a football game on two hands.