Coach Dino Babers is set to begin his fourth season at Syracuse, and he’s a little on edge as the No. 22 Orange prepare for their season opener on the road against Liberty.
“We just came off a difficult camp, it really was, a little frustrating on my part,” Babers said Monday. “We had some injuries that we need to overcome. We’ve lost some players, but we came out OK. If you don’t push them that hard, then what you have is a healthy team that’s not ready. I’d rather be a little banged-up and ready than a healthy team that’s not ready.
“For the most part the team is fresh, but I’m nervous about this one. We really don’t know what these guys are going to do.”
Syracuse, coming off a 10-3 season, faces the Flames and first-year coach Hugh Freeze on Saturday night. The Orange haven’t opened a season with a true road game since 2010 against Akron, though they did play a neutral-site game against Penn State at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey to begin the 2013 season, a 23-17 loss.
Since Paul Pasqualoni was fired as coach after the 2004 season, the Orange had had only three winning seasons - two 8-5 showings under Doug Marrone and a 7-6 one under his successor, Scott Shafer, and attendance dwindled. Last year’s breakthrough came after three straight 4-8 finishes and with dual-threat quarterback Eric Dungey leading an offense that averaged just over 40 points.
A record number of season tickets - more than 9,000 - has since been sold in anticipation of another stellar year, this time with redshirt sophomore quarterback Tommy DeVito at the helm instead of Dungey, who exhausted his eligibility.
There’s no looking back.
“This team has nothing to do with last year’s team and last year’s team has nothing to do with this year’s team,” Babers said. “So much of the expectation is based on people who are no longer in the room. They have to shape, form their own identity. It’s a work in progress. Come Saturday night … we’ll have an idea.”
It’s DeVito’s team now, and outwardly he exudes plenty of confidence as he prepares for his first college start. He succeeds a warrior-like player - the often-injured Dungey was a fiery leader who endeared himself to the Orange faithful.
At least DeVito, who led Syracuse to two victories in relief of Dungey last season, will have an array of veterans to lean on, among them senior tailback Moe Neal and senior wide receiver Sean Riley .
“I don’t know if anyone’s ready to step into that role,” Babers said. “But I know this - he is going to be the guy that’s going to have the ball, and the guy that has the ball has a lot to say about what’s going to happen, whether it’s a positive or a negative.
“He’s waited and he’s eager,” Babers said. “That nervous energy is good, but you’ve got to be careful with that at that position. He’s going to have to go through some growing pains of seeing some stuff he hasn’t seen. Once he locks it in, once he memorizes it, he’ll be really, really good.”
Though injured in camp, redshirt junior Sam Heckel is listed as the starter at center while redshirt freshman Carlos Vettorello will start at left guard, a key player for a pocket passer like DeVito. Defensive tackle McKinley Williams remains out indefinitely with a foot injury.
“We’re trying … to make sure these guys are 100% mentally ready to go,” Babers said. “If we can get the physical and mental together, then maybe we can have a nice, clean game.”
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