Dino Babers walked into the Ensley Athletic Center at 4:45 Tuesday morning, eager as ever to kick off the Syracuse University football spring practice.
The Orange head coach entering his sixth season at the helm is prepared for a unique spring session, featuring a handful of sixth-year seniors, players returning from injuries or opt-outs, and incoming freshmen who enrolled early that he deemed “should be home getting ready for prom.”
The variety has combined to make for unprecedented roster depth and what Babers hopes will spark the most competitive and productive offseason training stretch of his tenure.
Babers spoke to the media via Zoom following SU’s first practice that lasted three hours Tuesday. The Orange is scheduled to progress to full pads on Friday for the next phase of the six-week session. No announcements have been made regarding the potential for the program’s annual spring football game.
“It’s an exciting morning, watching the sun rise when I was going indoors and seeing the young men start meetings at 6 a.m.,” said Babers, aiming to help SU rebound from its 1-10 record last year.
“There was a lot of energy, a lot of excitement, but for me it’s like, I’ve done it before and I know how much work we have to do, but it’s fun to see the kids invested and ready to go.”
Syracuse’s redshirt junior and incumbent starting quarterback, Tommy DeVito, is fully cleared for spring activities after suffering a season-ending injury four games into the 2020 campaign.
DeVito and Mississippi State transfer, sophomore Garrett Shrader, led the quarterback drills and were in action along with returning freshmen, JacoBian Morgan and Dillon Markiewicz, and incoming freshman, Justin Lamson. The position is one of many that Babers cited on the value of added depth.
“Everybody is out there competing,” Babers said. “This is a different deal, with so many guys being here, the lines are longer, you can scrimmage more, you can go up-tempo more because of the lines and the depth, and guys are going to get an opportunity in game-like situations to show and prove what they can do.”
Babers also elaborated on pursuing Shrader — the 6-foot-4, 220-pound dual threat passer — in the transfer portal earlier this offseason, expressing the need for a second QB with significant game experience to push for starts or provide depth after the graduation of backup Rex Culpepper.
“We think those (freshmen) are going to be good, but we just felt like we needed to get a guy in here to really compete for the job so that we could have at least two guys who have started a lot of college football games, been in games, that would give us a better opportunity to win,” Babers said.
Babers spoke to the improvements expected along the revamped offensive line and Garrett Williams leading a young secondary that lost three potential NFL Draft picks.
He also touched on specifics at the running back position, confirming that redshirt senior Abdul Adams and junior Jarveon Howard are back after opting out due to COVID-19 concerns last year. He said that they will start from the bottom after Sean Tucker seized the lead role in the backfield as a true freshman last fall, but there will be “no handcuffs on those guys,” as they battle for touches this offseason.
The Orange has already added eight early enrollees from the incoming freshman class, including four-star defensive back — Darian ‘Duce,’ Chestnut — who hauled in a pick during the opening spring practice.
Several returning seniors are back utilizing their extra year of eligibility from the NCAA — they were not charged a season for playing last fall through the COVID-19 pandemic. Offensive lineman Airon Servais, defensive lineman Josh Black, and versatile fullback Chris Elmore headline that group.
“It’s unique and it’s never happened in my 35 years,” Babers said. “I really wish everybody could have this experience, because they are totally different, they’re walking around as six-year guys and they’ve gone through it and nothing really phases them. You’re not going to shake them, they’ve seen too much, it’s like having graduate assistant coaches that can play.”
Syracuse made it through just three of 15 scheduled practices last spring before COVID-19 shut down the campus. They are scheduled to open the regular season on Sept. 4 with a nonconference road game at Ohio.