SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - Doug Marrone begins his third season as coach at Syracuse with a tough act to follow _ his own.
In his brief tenure, Marrone has taken his alma mater from the basement of college football’s top rung _ the Orange were one of the chief laughingstocks of the Football Bowl Subdivision after four years under Greg Robinson produced just 10 wins _ to a squad coming off an 8-5 season capped by a bowl victory.
The trick now is to keep that momentum going.
“We’ve talked to the players,” said Marrone, who has 24 new ones on the roster. “We’ve signed on to our goals, and our goal for the football team, make no mistake about it, is being able to compete for a Big East championship. We want to make sure that we can have a team that, year in and year out, can be consistent with competing for the title in this conference.
“Obviously, we haven’t established that because we’ve only done it for one year. We want to make sure we can get that year in and year out for this football team.”
That might prove a tall task this season. Syracuse lost the heart of its resurgent defense to graduation. Gone from a unit that was ranked seventh in the nation (301.5 yards per game) last season are standout linebackers Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith, not to mention the starting cornerbacks and top three defensive tackles.
At least Marquis Spruill, who had nine tackles for loss as a freshman, returns at linebacker to provide some experience on a unit that returns only five starters.
“Linebacker is a critical position for us,” Marrone said. “We lost Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue. Not only were they two good football players, but they were better people and great leaders for us in the locker room and off the field. That’s probably our No. 1 concern on the defensive side of the ball, is the leadership.”
The Orange began preseason camp with a five-man rotation on the defensive line, and at least one observer liked what he saw.
“We have some guys in that interior that are nasty. They just don’t care,” said stalwart senior defensive end Chandler Jones, who had 9.5 sacks and forced three fumbles last season. “That’s what we need on defense _ somebody to risk their body and throw their body in there to make that play.”
If the defense has question marks, the offense should click better than it did a year ago. Syracuse averaged 22.2 points and 322.8 yards per game in 2010. And with one year under his belt as the starter, senior quarterback Ryan Nassib is poised for a solid year.
Junior Charley Loeb, a lefty, will be the backup for the second year. Offering protection up front is an offensive line that returns four starters in Michael Hay, Andrew Tiller, Justin Pugh and Zack Chibane.
“We’re coming in with a lot of veterans. We’re coming back with the same system,” said senior Antwon Bailey, who had 569 yards rushing and 35 receptions for 306 yards last year and is anxious to succeed Delone Carter as the No. 1 running back. “That’s the first time that’s happened since I’ve been here. We have the same coordinators. We have the same position coaches. We’re going to come out rolling, firing.”
Nassib completed a school-record 202 passes for 2,334 yards and 19 touchdowns with eight interceptions last season and will have an experienced receiving corps to throw to. Senior Van Chew, who led the Orange in receptions (41), yards (611) and receiving touchdowns (five) last season, senior Dorian Graham, and junior Alec Lemon (29 catches, 295 yards) top the list, while sophomore Jarrod West and freshmen Jeremiah Kobena, Kyle Foster and Keenan Hale are vying for playing time.
Missing, though, is senior Marcus Sales, who had 26 catches for 414 yards and four touchdowns last year. He was expected to be one of the Orange’s go-to guys after a breakout game _ five catches for 173 yards and three scores in Syracuse’s 36-34 win over Kansas State in the Pinstripe Bowl _ but was suspended indefinitely from the team last week after being arrested for drug possession.