Syracuse searches for toughness on Army base
Doug Marrone didn't hesitate when the opportunity arose to take his Syracuse Orange to preseason train on an Army base.
''My thought process was very simple,'' Marrone said. ''I'm bringing my football team up there to get better, to get tougher, to work hard. All the things anyone would look at on the outside.''
So the Orange, 5-7 last year and 1-6 in the conference, spent a week at Fort Drum in northern New York. And any toughness they might have found along the way will be needed After all, they finished 2011 on a five-game losing streak.
That is Marrone's mission. And it's a big one. This is the start of his fourth season at the helm of his alma mater, and it is the Orange's last in the Big East before they depart for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The pressure is on.
''It's a very big help. Coach brought us here for a reason,'' defensive tackle Davon Walls said. ''He really wanted us to come together as a unit and be accountable for whatever we do.''
Syracuse returns 12 starters, five of them on offense and none more important than senior quarterback Ryan Nassib, who guided them to a 5-2 mark last fall before the team self-destructed. Nassib set school single-season records for completions (259), passing yards (2,685) and tied the mark for touchdown passes (22). Lefty Charley Loeb is slated to be the backup.
''It's my last go-around. The last couple days when I was home on break I was feeling a little anxious about the year,'' Nassib said. ''But once I started driving up here, that's when the excitement started hitting me. What lies ahead is something no person can really comprehend because you kind of have to be a part of it. It's your last year, you put so much into this school and this team, and having one last chance is something special.''
When the Orange open the season against Northwestern in the Carrier Dome on Sept. 1, Nassib won't have the luxury of handing off or throwing to All-Big East tailback Antwon Bailey, who graduated after a stellar season (1,051 yards rushing and 29 catches for 200 more yards). Vying to replace Bailey are juniors Jerome Smith, Steve Rene, and Prince-Tyson Gulley, who missed the final eight games of 2011 with a broken collarbone.
There will be the luxury of incorporating freshman Ashton Broyld into the offense. The 6-foot-4, 229-pound Broyld, the Orange's version of Tim Tebow, was a star quarterback in high school in suburban Rochester, N.Y. Broyld, who threw for 1,961 yards and 24 touchdowns and rushed for 1,560 rushing yards and 24 more scores as a senior, is expected to see time at receiver, tailback - basically whatever Marrone throws his way.
''My job is just to come in here and do what I can do for the team, and that's all I'm going to try to do,'' said Broyld, who enrolled in January after spending last year at Milford Academy. ''I really don't know what to expect. I just want to win.''
Back, too, is senior wide receiver Alec Lemon, one of only 11 players to start all 12 games last fall. He set the program's single-season record for receptions with 68 for 834 yards. Redshirt senior Marcus Sales also returns after a drug arrest kept him out of school last year. He's anxious to prove his performance in the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl - five catches, three for touchdowns, and 174 yards - was no fluke.
''It's a big thing for us because (Lemon) has been very productive, and Sales being back helps,'' Marrone said.
However, Nassib will have to watch his back early in the season. All-Big East left tackle Justin Pugh (6-6, 292 pounds) is recovering from shoulder surgery and isn't likely to start the opener. Still, there are plenty of other big bodies up front, including Lou Alexander (6-4, 331) and Zach Chibane (6-5, 293).
''We have a lot of talent, probably the most talent we've ever had,'' Pugh said. ''We've always had a good four or five guys, but the depth was always lacking. We have some guys this year that can play.''
There are a couple of gaping holes on defense - end Chandler Jones skipped his final year and is in the NFL with New England and Phillip Thomas, who had six interceptions and was the team's leading tackler, chose not to return to school because he was facing a one-year suspension. Also, defensive tackle Ryan Sloan is out for the season with a lower body injury, running back Steven Rene is out for three to five weeks with an upper body injury, and six other players were listed day-to-day as camp winded down.
The bright spot is at linebacker, where all three starters return, though they've been shuffled around. Marquis Spruill has been moved out of the middle in favor of Siriki Diabate, and Dyshawn Davis is back after leading the team with 10.5 tackles for loss. Placekicker Ross Krautman, already eighth all-time at Syracuse with 33 field goals his first two years, also returns.
One of the Orange's glaring weaknesses has been the lack of big plays.
They're working on that, too.
''There are steps you have to take in this game,'' Marrone said. ''That's where we haven't been as consistent - making plays, making those big plays. We're trying to create greater opportunities for these guys to do that, but I feel good. I think we've run faster than we have in the past. But we've got to do that on the field. We've got to do get by people, beat a block and score a touchdown.''
Syracuse didn't do that nearly enough after humbling 12th-ranked West Virginia 49-23 last October, a victory that many expected to send the Orange to a higher level and their second straight bowl game. Instead, they averaged just 16 points in losing the final five games, and as they get set to play their final season in the Big East, they figure to be faced with a good dose of adversity on the road.
''That taste last year ended on a bad note. It really hurt us a lot,'' senior defensive end Deon Goggins said. ''I see the changes in a lot of the young guys that have to step up. You can see they didn't like that, they didn't like that feeling, so they're more focused than ever.
''They see - and not only the young guys, but us - that it's not easy to win.''