Starting quarterback Eric Dungey will be just one of multiple SU seniors who are getting ready to begin their final season with a blast from the past on the opposing Western Michigan sideline.
Some ‘Cuse fans may recognize WMU’s head coach Tim Lester from his time as SU’s offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator. That saga ended with one game left in the 2015 season with Scott Shafer’s firing. Other WMU staffers who held a position with SU at the time include offensive coordinator Jake Moreland, defensive coordinator Tim Daoust and director of operations Drew Robinson. Eric Dungey will also be looking to thread balls past former Syracuse cornerback Juwan Dowels, who transferred to Western Michigan this offseason. These are just some of the Broncos players and staff with Orange pasts.
The Orange veterans will look to avoid a situation similar to last year’s 23-30 loss to Scott Shafer’s Middle Tennessee program in the Carrier Dome. This means that to avoid starting off similarly to last year’s team which finished 4-8, the Orange will have to do something they haven’t done since they beat Clemson last year: They’ll have to pull out a win.
While Eric Dungey is set to start week one after sitting out the end of the 2017 season, the Orange have some changes on both sides of the ball that will surely provide early season storylines.
What the Orange Will Look Like
On offense, SU returns both main halfbacks from last year in Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal. The team also returns starting tight end Ravian Pierce and three offensive linemen from last year’s starting lineup. The other two o-linemen are redshirt seniors Aaron Roberts, who missed the 2017 season with an ACL tear, and Koda Martin, who transferred from Texas A&M this offseason to play under his father, SU quarterbacks coach Kirk Martin.
The Orange managed to keep or improve upon most of their offensive pieces, but they did lose 11 touchdowns and over 2300 yards of total offense with the departure of last year’s dynamic receiving duo of Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips. Junior Devin Butler looks to be the main beneficiary of these changes, as he had more receptions and receiving yards last year than anyone else on this year’s roster. His teammates Jamal Custis and Sean Riley however, may break out as big play threats, as both averaged 15+ yards per catch in 2017.
On defense, the Orange kept all the moving parts of its d-line except Kayton Samuels, who transferred to Indiana. The most impactful of the bunch should once again be DE Alton Robinson and DT Chris Slayton. The duo combined for 14.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks last year. Much of last year’s secondary will also return this year, including starting cornerbacks Christopher Fredrick and Scoop Bradshaw. The team’s second leading solo tackler last year also returns in strong safety Evan Foster. The two big departures in the secondary are defensive backs Rodney Williams and Juwan Dowels, who combined for 68 tackles last year. Both Williams and Dowels transferred from Syracuse as graduate students.
The biggest change will be establishing redshirt senior Antwan Cordy’s new role on the Syracuse defense. The defensive back played in 12 games in 2015, but only appeared in 3 games on defense in the last two seasons combined. This year, you may see the 5’8” Cordy playing in the box where you would normally see a strong side linebacker. This is because his nose for the ball makes him a perfect fit to play the rover spot in the 4-2-5 defense which head coach Dino Babers is expected to be rolling out this season. This defensive switch may not be the base package against WMU, as their rushing offense will probably require a third linebacker in the box. When the 4-2-5 does break out however, expect Cordy (4 pass deflections, 2 INTs, 2 FR, 1 FF, 1 TD in 2015) to cover the opposing offense’s slot receiver or running back on pass plays and to wreak havoc on run plays.
This 4-2-5 defense may help cover up some holes left by the departures of SU’s three starting linebackers from last year, fan favorites Zaire Franklin, Parris Bennett and Jonathan Thomas. As for Friday’s depth chart, junior linebacker Andrew Armstrong will man the weak (Will) side, senior Ryan Guthrie will start in the middle (Mike), and converted defensive back Kielan Whitner will be positioned on the strong (Sam) side. Look for Kielan Whitner’s athleticism to keep him in the lineup when Cordy comes into the box in the 4-2-5. When this happens, freshman free safety Andre Cisco is a likely candidate to protect against the deep ball.
What to Watch For Against Western Michigan
Unless Eric Dungey lost his magic during the summer, he should be able to pick apart the Broncos defense as long as he makes the right reads. Western Michigan will have to replace cornerbacks Darius Phillips and Sam Beal, both of whom got drafted to NFL teams. There are a couple guys slated to step in, including Juwan Dowels, but replacing that quality of production will be tough. When Eric Dungey escapes the pocket and makes it into the second level against WMU, he will look to shrug off three starting linebackers who weigh less than he does. The Broncos also transitioned offensive lineman Wesley French into a defensive lineman this spring, meaning Tim Lester is trying to fill a hole in the Broncos d-line which could be exploited early in the season before French feels comfortable in his new position at game speed.
Based on the weapons that the Broncos have on offense, this game could be a shootout if neither defense has effectively adjusted to its respective personnel changes. Western Michigan returns junior quarterback Jon Wassink, who threw for 14 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions through 8 games in 2017. He’ll have two 6’4” receivers to work with in redshirt senior Drake Harris and redshirt freshman Jaylen Hall. Finally, WMU boasts two tailbacks on the Doak Walker award watchlist for the nation’s best running back. Both Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy rushed for over 5 yards per carry last year, and there will be a lot more opportunities with last year’s starter Jarvion Franklin currently holding a spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster.
If Eric Dungey and Dino Babers are looking to bring the Orange to a bowl game for the first time since 2013 then a week one statement might be the best way to do it after ending last year having lost five straight. 2013 is also the last time Syracuse played its season opener away from home. That game was a 17-23 loss to Penn St. at MetLife Stadium. For full game coverage, tune into 88.3 FM tomorrow at 5pm for Countdown to Kickoff to bring you right up to the start of SU’s season opener at 6pm.