Syracuse University football’s media day cleared up any concerns that were left to the imagination before players and coaches reported to training camp Saturday morning.
Head coach Doug Marrone, his staff and the players stressed one point above all as the season kicked into gear with the annual media day.
“The depth chart is a starting point. After that first snap, it’s competition, and our players know that,” Marrone said.
The sentiment being passed around Manley Field House was one of optimism over the wealth of offensive weapons at the disposal of the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s eyes lit up with enthusiasm when he got a chance to address the subject.
“Since I’ve been here, this is the most depth we’ve had,” Hackett said. “We’ve had some great players, guys you’ll never be able to replace … But right now it’s awesome to script and get ready for all the practices and say ‘Okay, which one are you going to put in there?’”
The team heads into Marrone’s fourth training camp on the heels of a disappointing 2011 campaign in which the Orange began 5-2, including a 49-23 victory over nationally-ranked West Virginia, but lost the final five by an average of 12.8 points per game and missed out on a bowl-game appearance.
Hackett pointed out that the late-season collapse had a silver-lining effect.
“You’re always going to think you have an edge, because you’ve got something to prove and show. Those guys went in there with some excitement to prove that they’re a lot better than they showed last year,” Hackett added.
Redshirt senior Ryan Nassib enters his third season as starting quarterback with lofty expectations after setting or tying three single-season school records in 2011. Yet, Marrone avoided referring to Nassib as the outright starter.
“Players coming back, they have a background of knowledge for the system. You would think that players would have a greater ability to execute the system. But again, I can’t answer that question until I see how we’re playing now,” Marrone said.
His motives were clear.
“Everything is judged on what we’re doing now and who gives us the greatest chance to win,” Marrone said.
Nassib himself echoed the same line of thinking.
He said: “We’ve got some more mature guys with some game experiences that have the talent and potential to do some great things. One thing different from last year is we have more numbers. It’s good because it forces guys to compete more each and every day, breaks guys up from being complacent.”
One player looking to make a difference is incoming freshman Ashton Broyld, of Henrietta, N.Y. He is listed in SU’s 2012 Media Guide as a running back, but he is expected to pivot around the skill positions. Broyld praised the positive aspects of competition for starting spots.
“When you’ve got a guy behind you working just as hard as you, you have no choice but to get better. To know that someone is chasing your spot, somebody right behind you watching everything you do, you have no choice but to try to be perfect and try to do everything right and you can only get better from that,” he said.
Training camp will feature two kinds of competition on the offensive side of the ball for the Orange. On one hand, the roster features two stand-out senior wide receivers in Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales. Both will be tough to uproot after Lemon set the single-season record for receptions (68) in 2011 and Sales paced SU to its 2010 New Era Pinstripe Bowl victory with five receptions, 172 yards and three touchdowns.
Running back, on the other hand, is less of a sure thing as Marrone and his staff seek to replace departed 1,000-yard rusher Antwon Bailey. The official depth chart lists six players at the position; none of them are seniors or with any starts under their belts. Junior Jerome Smith, of Bear, Del., will get the first shot, but Broyld and junior Prince-Tyson Gulley, of Akron, Ohio, are in the mix as well.
Senior third-year starter at left tackle and 2011 All-Big East First Team member Justin Pugh was not concerned by the lack of experience behind him.
Pugh said: “For us as offensive linemen we’re just going to go out there and block. We’ve got the mentality where we’re blue collar guys, we go out there and we just work. We’re just going to keep working and we hope it rubs off on them.”
Pugh was confident that no matter who the feature back is, if there is one, they are not coming fresh out of the box.
“Those guys have been back there and they’ve seen guys like Delone Carter and Antwon Bailey, so they know the styles of our backs. They know the tradition of the school,” Pugh added
Despite his status as a preseason All-Big East First Team member on numerous lists, and despite the right side of the offensive line losing two starters, Pugh remained humble and focused.
He said: “I have to fight to keep my spot just like everyone else. Nothing is a given especially in college football … We’re going to put the two best guys in there that can play and we’ll see come camp. It really comes down to who plays the best. I’m excited to see what they have.”
As the team heads to Fort Drum, home of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, for a week of practice beginning Aug. 12, anticipation builds over who will win starting spots.
Nassib made sure to return focus to where it belongs.
“It’s football 24/7 so you gotta love it.”