Ex-Duke guard sparks woeful Orange team

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Among the many tasks Greg Paulus faced this week was the challenge of learning his way around a new campus.

Chances are, the Duke point guard-turned-Syracuse starting quarterback won’t have much trouble finding Carrier Dome when the Orange play host to Minnesota in Saturday’s season opener.

The Paulus Plan - the graduate student’s decision to request an NCAA waiver to use his final year of eligibility at his hometown school - has thrust attention on a woebegone program and an athlete trying to accomplish the difficult task of contributing after four years away from the sport.

Paulus was named the starter two weeks ago, a team captain shortly thereafter. He’ll play his first game a little more than five months after Duke’s regional semifinal drubbing at the hands of Villanova seemingly ended his collegiate career.

“I think the decision, that’s something I didn’t anticipate a half a year ago,” Paulus said. “But to do that, it’s really exciting and a great opportunity. It’s been a busy three months. I can’t tell you how fast it’s gone. I’m trying to make the most of it, learning about the guys, learning the system and getting adjusted to the culture.”

Not to mention getting reacclimated to football not far from where he grew up. Paulus was the Gatorade national player of the year as a quarterback at Christian Brothers Academy and entertained football offers before opting to play at Duke.

Yet about a week after Duke was eliminated, Paulus received a call from the Green Bay Packers expressing interest. It revived some thoughts about the game, and soon he was tossing a ball around. By May, his name had surfaced in connection with several schools.

Ultimately, Syracuse was the most appealing option, setting off a scramble for Paulus to immerse himself in the program.

“He’s ready to go,” said former Navy lacrosse defenseman Andy Tormey, a close friend of Paulus’ who has known him since they were in seventh grade. “Once he throws that first ball or has that first handoff, he’s going to be golden.”

Perfect? Probably not. But it would be difficult to imagine many athletes making the transition Paulus has so quickly, and even he acknowledges the adjustment likely will continue for some time.

“I’ve gotten better a little bit each day,” he said. “Whether it’s seeing coverages or I’m taking more reps or understanding our concepts, there’s been something new where I’m learning something every day. That’s awesome. I’m just trying to learn and keep progressing. At this position, I understand that’s not going to come all at one time.”

The flip side of Paulus’ quick ascent to a starting job is the state of a once-reputable program mired in disarray. After all, it’s not everywhere a guy can take a four-year sabbatical from a sport and climb the depth chart so rapidly.

It required a specific combination of factors, starting with the talent Paulus opted to shelve in favor of four years playing for Mike Krzyzewski. The arrival of a new coach after a calamitous 10-37 run under Greg Robinson created some of the opening, as did Paulus’ status as a local hero.

Syracuse was sometimes great and usually steady throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. But the tail end of the Paul Pasqualoni years were tepid at best, and Robinson’s tenure cemented the Orange’s place at the bottom of the Big East. All along, attendance declined - dipping to about two-thirds of capacity last year, the lowest average since Carrier Dome opened in 1980.

While Paulus’ presence doesn’t guarantee any victories, it has commanded some much-needed attention. T-shirts blaring “Pauluspalooza” and “The Devil Wears Orange” have popped up in the central New York town last home to a bowl team in 2004.

“Him coming back here has completely turned around the whole city,” Tormey said. “Everybody is talking about them. When was the last time that happened? Nobody used to beyond, ‘Oh, they’re the worst team in Division I-A.’ Now, they’re getting mentioned, and Greg’s on [ESPN’s ‘Pardon the Interruption’] and Jim Rome and all these other things. It’s not only about Greg, but also about Syracuse University.”

Tormey, who said he plans to attend Syracuse’s game next week at Penn State, believes Paulus’ personality, enthusiasm and work ethic have always made him a guy people gravitate toward. He saw it at Christian Brothers, and similar tales have emerged from Duke and Syracuse.

Beyond a revived buzz for the Orange, Paulus’ decision to bring those skills to Syracuse might prove the greatest contribution of his belated college football career.

“People on the outside will be only maybe able to judge Greg on a standpoint of skill on the football field,” coach Doug Marrone said. “They’ll never understand the impact he’s already had and will continue to have on our football team.”

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