With the end of spring ball at hand, Syracuse coach Dino Babers figures his Orange are farther ahead than when he took over the program just over a year ago.
"Anytime you learn a new system, there's going to be difficulties," Babers said as he prepared for Saturday's spring-ending scrimmage in the Carrier Dome. "I think the biggest thing is the guys are being more physical. They know where to go ... and I think they're having a lot more fun doing it."
With quarterback Eric Dungey healthy again and packing more muscle on his 6-foot-3 frame, the offense is poised to become more efficient after an impressive first season under Babers.
"We're able to open up the playbook a little more. Last year was a learning period, a lot of learning," said wideout Ervin Philips, who had 90 receptions for 822 yards and six TDs last season as a junior. "That first year I was still learning. This year I have more knowledge."
Before he was injured two-thirds of the way through what ended as a 4-8 season last fall and sat out the final three games with a head injury, Dungey was near the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference statistics. He averaged 25.6 completions per game and had six 300-yard games. For the season, the Orange racked up 5,290 yards of offense, gaining over 500 yards five times.
Still, the ballyhooed uptempo offense that Babers learned at Baylor and honed while coaching at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green sort of overshadowed perhaps the team's most glaring weakness — its defense.
The season finale at Pittsburgh provided a microcosm for much of the 2016 campaign — lots of yards and points for the offense and eye-opening totals allowed by the defense. The Panthers had the ball for only 24:18 and yet gained 644 total yards, averaging 10.9 yards per play in a 76-61 victory. The highest-scoring regulation game in FBS history left the Orange defense under coordinator Brian Ward with these final statistics: 38.6 points and 501 yards allowed per game.
There's good news, though, at least on paper. The Orange played a lot of underclassmen last season, giving them needed college experience, and this year will have 21 returning starters (10 on defense), the highest figure in the nation.
Safety Antwan Cordy is healthy again after missing 10 games last season with a forearm injury. Senior linebackers Parris Bennett and Zaire Franklin provide a solid nucleus for a unit that intercepted 10 passes and recovered nine fumbles.
"I feel like a lot of guys are playing more fast and playing more confident," Bennett said. "We've been able to get our hands on a few balls. We've got to make plays. We've got to get our offense the ball."
Six newcomers joined the team for spring ball, including two freshmen — OL Patrick Davis and LB Nadarius Fagan — and two transfers who were standouts in junior college — LB Ryan Guthrie and TE Ravian Pierce. The other two are former Notre Dame DB Devin Butler, who has one year of eligibility left, and former Holy Cross LB Jesse Conners.
Also among the weaknesses was the run game. Syracuse averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and 119.6 yards rushing per game. Babers says ineffective blocking on the perimeter last year created problems that hampered the ground game when screens failed to gain the necessary yardage.
"Anytime we have our bubbles and our screens, that's interior runs for us on the edges," Babers said. "We didn't do a great job with that last year, and we need to bring that back into our offense.
"We're going to be a lot more disciplined in that group, and I think, overall, I believe we're going to be better if we finish hard this spring. Add in the new freshmen, I think we may have a group we can be proud of."