Syracuse's Scott Shafer is about to experience again that anxiety over facing an opponent from college football's second tier. At least he's used to it.
In his four seasons before Shafer took over, Doug Marrone had to prepare the Orange twice for Maine, and once each for Colgate, Rhode Island and Stony Brook. Syracuse won every game against those FCS teams, but all were tough encounters. Shafer, who guided the Orange to a convincing win over Wagner last fall, expects another difficult game on Friday night when the Orange host Villanova in the season opener for both teams.
"Nova is maybe the best FCS opponent to come in here in a long time," Shafer said. "The anxiety of the kids is high in a good way."
Considering he was thrust into the role in the blink of an eye when Marrone bolted to take over the Buffalo Bills of the NFL, Shafer's first season as a head coach was a solid success at 7-6 with a bowl victory. That Shafer didn't have a returning starter at quarterback to ease the transition certainly didn't help.
This year he has that luxury in redshirt junior Terrel Hunt, and that should help. Last fall, Hunt won the starting job after getting beaten out in the preseason by Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen and started the final 10 games. Hunt's best performances came in the final two games, comeback victories over Boston College in the season finale and Minnesota in the Texas Bowl.
"He gets a little better every day," Syracuse quarterbacks coach Tim Lester said. "I can't wait to see him out there on Friday. Technique-wise he's much better. His ball has a lot more zip. His deep ball is drastically improved. He can throw different types of deep balls. I've seen the natural progression I thought I'd see."
And most important — Hunt has the confidence needed to play the position effectively.
"He has to take advantage of the progress he's made, throw the ball to the people that are open and not try to force things down the field," Shafer said. "He's got a lot of ability to carry the team on his back, but I don't want him thinking he has to win the games for us."
Here are some things to know when Syracuse hosts Villanova:
WHO'LL STOP HIM: The Wildcats have 15 starters back, and no one is more important than junior quarterback John Robertson, the Colonial Athletic Association preseason player of the year. Robertson threw for 1,957 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013 and rushed for another 1,405 yards and 20 more TDs in leading an offense that scored more than 30 points a game. "He's good," Syracuse defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough said. "You just have to contain him. We just have to make it uncomfortable for him when he runs the ball."
HUNT'S TIME: After appearing in only one game his first year, 6-foot-3, 234-pound quarterback Terrel Hunt matured a great deal in 2013. He completed 167 passes for 1,638 yards and 10 TDs to go with eight interceptions, and rushed for 500 yards and seven more scores. His size makes him a load for defenders to bring down and his arm strength is impressive. The one concern is sophomore backup Austin Wilson — he has never played in a game and didn't win the role until the end of preseason camp.
GOOD-BYE CAPTAINS: Syracuse lost 19 players from the bowl team, including standout defensive tackle Jay Bromley, linebacker Marquis Spruill, center Macky MacPherson and running back Jerome Smith. All four served as captains. Stepping up to help fill the void will be senior linebackers Cameron Lynch and Dyshawn Davis and sophomore Marqez Hodge. Up front are senior defensive ends Robert Welsh and Micah Robinson, senior nose tackle Eric Crume, and defensive tackle Marcus Coleman. "I like the character of the group, We'll be OK," defensive line coach Tim Daoust said. "It's not like we have free agents coming in."
THROW TO ME: Syracuse has a solid group of receivers in senior Jarrod West, Quinta Funderburk, and freshman Steve Ishmael, along with speedy Brisly Estime and the bruising, elusive Ashton Broyld. "We want to set the tone for the rest of the season, start on a high note," Hunt said.
Freelance writer Mark Frank contributed to this report