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.
The kicking game figures to be a strong point again with the return of Ross Krautman, who hit 18 of 19 field-goal attempts as a freshman to tie Gary Anderson's school record for field goals in a season set in 1981. Krautman also hit 16 straight field goals to match another Anderson record, and was 30 of 32 on extra points.
Punting is another matter. Replacing four-year standout Rob Long (43.5 yard average) won't be easy. Shane Raupers is the top candidate.
If Marrone hopes to continue the turnaround, he and the Orange will have to find a way to win more games in the Carrier Dome. Syracuse finished fourth in the Big East at 4-3 last season and won only twice at home — against Maine and Colgate, who play in the Football Championship Subdivision. That 0-4 mark against FBS teams won't cut it.
Syracuse has one FCS game this year — Rhode Island in Week 2 — among its seven home dates. The Orange also host Wake Forest, Toledo, Rutgers, West Virginia, South Florida and Cincinnati.
Putting the preseason distractions in the rearview mirror also is a top priority. Besides Sales' predicament, kick returner Prince Tyson-Gulley is recovering from being stabbed in his back and arms during a brawl at an on-campus party, and wasn't expected to be able to participate fully for seven to 10 days.
"We need all our focus and attention from our football team for what we do out here on the football field and on the players that are here," Marrone said. "In doing so, we have a good opportunity to create a good experience for our players, win football games, and accomplish those goals.
"The more distractions we have, the more it takes away from us being a good football team."
Syracuse kicks off the season with a night game at home on Sept. 1 against Wake Forest.
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