Keep Up! How the Syracuse chain gang remains apace with one of college football's fastest offenses
One-hundred and five minutes before kickoff, Joe Sweet and his chain crew assemble in the bowels of the Carrier Dome. As usual, the eight-man army converges in a tucked away room with the head linesmen and line judge. On this day, Steve Clein and Deon Lawrence are the officials presenting at the meeting, with Syracuse and Virginia Tech's matchup drawing nearer.
The reminders are as simple as they are vital: Don't get hurt. Pay attention to the officials. Don't get hurt.
It's largely the same spiel Sweet's heard since he first started working with Syracuse's chain crew as a freshman in 1987. Despite decades of familiarity, 2016 has brought about a new wrinkle, a package deal with SU's new head coach. Dino Babers brought with him a no-huddle offense, one that's been dizzying anyone with the unfortunate task of keeping up to it.
"It's the real deal, for sure," Sweet said of Syracuse's tempo. "…I used to (have) the best seat in the house. I don't watch the game much anymore."
It's been a challenge for opposing defenses, let alone a handful of adults lugging lengthy equipment up and down the sidelines. Against Virginia Tech alone last Saturday, the Orange led all FBS schools with 101 plays according to TeamRankings.com. Given the 33:25 time of possession for Syracuse, it was snapping the ball about every 20 seconds on offense. That's about what Sweet and his crew have come accustomed to this season, and as much as they possibly can, they feel caught up.
The first-year head coach has made good on his initial word to unleash "a game that's faster than you've ever seen on turf." SU's offense is leading the country with about 101 plays every home game, per TeamRankings.com. That calculation doesn't factor in non-FBS games like SU's Week 1 matchup with Colgate, but still stands as one of the best marks in the country.
"Think of a two-minute offense," Sweet said, "and you're just doing the two-minute offense the entire game. That's the best way I can describe it.
"If nobody remembers us it's a great game."
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When it comes to working a game, there aren't many firsts left for Sweet. He's filled all five positions on the crew over parts of the last 30 seasons, rounding it out with his current job holding the down box. But something different came his way last spring in the form of an invitation. Through director of football operations Brad Wittke, Babers reached out to Sweet.
He wanted the chain gang at several of the Orange's spring practices. He wanted them to learn the pace, just like his players. He wanted the shock therapy of a fast-paced offense to take place in April, not August.
As Sweet now attests, Babers was spot on.
"The biggest thing I wanted (the chain crew) to know was, 'Hey, you guys have to be in shape because there's going to be a lot of plays,'" Babers said. "…I don't want those guys pulling a hamstring and going down.
"They do a heck of a job for us."
Sweet maintains the learning curve this season has been minimal, primarily because of the early work Babers let them put in. The mechanics aren't any different, just the speed. It's a stark contrast to last season, when TeamRankings.com says Syracuse ranked last in the FBS with 59 plays per home game.
Clad in white short-sleeve shirts, white bibs with blue ACC logos, black wind pants and ACC hats, Sweet's posse very much look the part of a third team on the field. They still must heed the word of officials, who instruct them when to move, even in the most obvious circumstances.
That, American Athletic Conference referee Jim Casey said, is the most difficult task dealing with chain crews. They want to move with the teams, especially with up-tempo ones like Syracuse. Not so fast.
"Don't move, don't move, don't move," Casey said he tells chain crews "at least" 10 times before every game. "Don't rush because the offense wants to go fast.
"You'll move when we want you to move."
Sweet and his team don't seem to be going anywhere. The "newest" member of Syracuse's chain gang is about eight seasons in. They've largely mastered the intricacies of patrolling the sideline, occasionally navigating a mosh pit of celebrating players spilling onto the field.
That was the case on Saturday in the Carrier Dome, with players and fans trickling onto the turf in celebration of Syracuse's first win against a ranked team in four years. With his head down, Sweet calmly traced his way around the chaos on the field. Trying to stay unnoticed, and to keep moving. Exactly how he operates.
Connor Grossman is SI's campus correspondent for Syracuse University. Follow him on Twitter.