Syracuse coach Scott Shafer enters season on hot seat
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) Scott Shafer enters his third season at Syracuse somewhat under the gun. He's not fazed.
''College football is about pressure every single year,'' Shafer said. ''They're just going to look at the bottom line, year in and year out. I understand that.''
Named head coach after Doug Marrone bolted for the NFL, the Orange's former defensive coordinator also understands his team is coming off a 3-9 year in which it won only one Atlantic Coast Conference game in eight tries.
''We had a very difficult season, but our kids prevailed off the field and in the classroom. That shows true character,'' Shafer said. ''It's how you get through the tough times that make the high times even higher. I think the program is at a place where I feel really good about.''
Shafer also has to please new athletic director Mark Coyle knowing full well what happened the last time Syracuse made a switch at the top of the athletics department. That was just over a decade ago, and the head football coach - Paul Pasqualoni, the second-winningest coach in school history - lost his job with one year left on his contract despite guiding Syracuse to a bowl game.
Shafer will ignore the not-so-flattering prognostications about 2015 with a one-day-at-a-time mentality. Coyle didn't say much about football when he was hired in June from Boise State, only that Syracuse will schedule ''wisely and efficiently'' with a goal of playing in a meaningful bowl game.
After doing just that in his rookie season and beating Minnesota in the Texas Bowl, last fall was forgettable for Shafer, who's 10-15 as the head guy. Injuries including starting quarterback Terrel Hunt and middle linebacker Marqez Hodge hurt the team as the season wore on. By November, Shafer was missing a dozen players and using his fourth-string QB, who was taking orders from an offensive coordinator who took over in midseason.
Not exactly a recipe for success. Some things to ponder as Syracuse prepares for its home opener Sept. 4:
Defense has been Syracuse's strong suit, and coordinator Chuck Bullough has difficult work ahead. He has to replace eight starters, including the top five tacklers from 2015. Zaire Franklin is a steadying force as he assumes MLB duties from Hodge, who moves outside this season. ''It's a huge challenge, but you have to play with what you got,'' said Bullough.
The Fanfest scrimmage is the team's preseason showcase for fans, and the Orange certainly didn't want to showcase some lingering injuries. Of top concern is a lower-body ailment hampering junior DE Ron Thompson, easily Syracuse's best pass rusher. He was wearing a boot on his left foot and walked around on crutches. Redshirt senior DT John Raymon (upper body) and redshirt freshman NT Kayton Samuels (lower body) are expected to be ready for the team's season opener against Rhode Island.
HUT HUT HUNT
Hunt, a dual-threat QB who missed the final seven games of 2014 after breaking a calf bone, is healthy for his final college season and will be directing a new offense installed by OC Tim Lester. The Orange, who used option plays with great success in years past with the likes of QBs Donovan McNabb and Don McPherson, unveiled a few option wrinkles at Fanfest. ''I can't wait (for the season to start) because we've got a lot of things that other teams haven't seen and that they're not going to be expecting,'' sophomore RB Erv Philips said.
SPECIAL SPECIAL TEAMS
Syracuse would appear to be in great shape in at least one phase of the game - special teams. As a freshman, PK Cole Murphy was 13 of 16 on field goals last season and a Lou Groza Award semifinalist, while senior Riley Dixon ranks fourth in school history with a career punting average of 42.2 yards.
Syracuse opens the season with four straight games in the Carrier Dome. It begins on a Friday night against Rhode Island of the Football Championship Subdivision. Then it's Wake Forest, predicted to be in the hunt with the Orange for the cellar in the ACC's Atlantic Division, and Central Michigan before reality strikes - LSU. Still, the possibility of a 3-0 start is nothing to sneer at, though last year's squad did start 2-0.