Josh Black has participated in every Syracuse University spring football practice under head coach Dino Babers and felt as much as ferocity during the training session that ended Thursday as he has in each of their six years together.
Black and other returning SU players spoke to the intense competition at various position groups, the overall desire to fight back from their 1-10 showing last season, and the urgency to account for lost development from last spring’s cancellation combining to form a tenacious spring practice period.
The Orange has been working mostly in silence and will not host its annual spring game like other Atlantic Coast Conference teams have in recent weeks, instead planning a fan event for August training camp with details to be announced.
Syracuse players believe they capitalized on the private training time, working through 15 practices and multiple scrimmages since the start of spring football March 30.
“In all my time that I’ve been here, I think this was the best spring ball we’ve ever had as a team, just cohesively, from the physicality as soon as we got our two feet on the ground running the first day, I just felt there was something different,” said Black, a sixth-year senior defensive lineman. “There’s a new form of energy, we just feel really hungry to get back on the field.”
Black is one of several returning seniors opting to use their added year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of whom are along the offensive and defensive lines. They set the tone for a month of physical, ruthless battles up front.
Babers described the competition between each line as among the fiercest throughout spring camp as the returning seniors on the defensive front — Black, Kingsley Jonathan, and McKinley Williams — faced off against the deepest offensive line of his tenure.
“There have been battles on the football field, some mental battles during stretches,” Babers said. “There have been some guys who think they’re boxers and WWF guys based on not liking what was going on, that might have delayed some practices until we get to the next snap, but it’s been fun.”
The aggressive nature this spring was a welcomed sight by Babers and players made available to media via Zoom for their lone offseason appearance earlier this week.
The head coach entering his sixth season at SU said that the internal battles for starting spots begin at quarterback and will continue when they open preseason training camp in early August.
“I think that (QB) competition is healthy,” Babers said. “I think any time you have competition you’re going to make people better, I think back to our 10-3 season (in 2018) and we had multiple guys behind center, it all finished with Eric Dungey and rightfully so, but competition brings out the best.”
The starter under center appears to be in a much better setup for success playing behind a revamped offensive line. Syracuse returns all five starters from the end of last season — Airon Servais, Matthew Bergeron, Darius Tisdale, Dakota Davis, and Carlos Vettorello.
The unit will also feature Florida transfer Chris Bleich gaining eligibility after sitting out last year, incoming Texas transfer Willie Tyler, and nine others on the 2021 season roster released earlier this week. The line was depleted by injuries last year, a situation Babers said he “never wants to be in again.”
“I think we’re a lot tougher, we have (better) technique than last year, and the communication has been great throughout the whole spring,” SU sophomore offensive tackle Matthew Bergeron said.
“It’s been great, especially from a communication standpoint, being with this whole group together for 15 practices, it helps a lot to build that chemistry.”
Babers declined to shed light on the backfield pecking order with freshman Sean Tucker serving as a 2020 bright spot while senior Abdul Adams and junior Jarveon Howard returned for spring ball after opting out of last season.
“I think for the most part, that backfield is the best we’ve had going into my sixth year,” Babers said. “Talking from top to bottom, I really think that not only these guys know what they’re doing, but they make plays with their legs, take pride in their blocking, and now they’re doing a little more receiving out of the backfield.”
Defensively, returning redshirt freshman cornerback Garrett Williams and sophomore linebacker Mikel Jones received the most praise by Babers and veteran players for their respective spring performances.
The Orange completed three of 15 scheduled practices last spring before getting shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first spring practice conducted under offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and defensive coordinator Tony White, each entering their second season at SU, along with a variety of assistant coaches.
“It’s given all of us an opportunity to get more familiar with the playbook offensively and defensively, and it’s always better to compete with one another as much as possible, it pays off in the fall,” SU cornerback Garrett Williams said. “I think missing that hurt last year and I think that spring ball and going at the pace we’re going will turn out to be a really good thing in the end.”