SYRACUSE — Tommy DeVito has played the role of prized recruit, promising redshirt prospect, and confident backup, and is now eager to establish himself as the starting quarterback and leader of the Syracuse University football team.
The redshirt sophomore is scheduled to make his first career start, despite playing in eight games as the primary backup last year, when the nationally-ranked No. 22 Orange kicks off its most anticipated season in recent memory with a nonconference game at 6 p.m. Saturday at Liberty on ESPN Plus.
DeVito is eager to help the Orange build upon a breakthrough 10-3 campaign that ended with a victory in the Camping World Bowl last year. SU will open its fourth season under head coach Dino Babers as a Top 25 unit for the first time since 1998, is coming off its first 10-win season since 2001, and was picked to finish second in the Atlantic Coast Conference Atlantic Division for its highest projection since joining the league in 2013.
DeVito has already proven himself a capable passer — helping guide SU to a historic victory over Florida State and a double-overtime comeback win against North Carolina in the Carrier Dome last season — and the strong-armed new starter said he has worked to build connections with teammates and assert his presence in the huddle throughout preseason training camp.
“I believe for myself, I’m trying not to be like another coach,” DeVito said. “I’m trying to talk to guys and be on more of a personable level, more friendly. Sometimes you got to get on some guys but some people respond different to yelling and just talking, so I’m just trying to be the best teammate that I can possibly be to every guy.”
DeVito created buzz among SU fans when he arrived on campus prior to the 2017 season. The 6-foot-2 product of John Bosco prep school in New Jersey was the eighth-ranked pocket passer in the Class of 2017 by ESPN, and rated as the No. 8 pro-style QB by the recruiting service 247Sports.com.
DeVito redshirted while studying and adjusting to Babers’ up-tempo system in the fall of 2017, and filled in admirably as then-senior Eric Dungey’s primary backup last season after competing for the starting spot and rotating in with other starters throughout camp.
“The competitive side of it (was challenging),” DeVito said of his first two years with the program. “No one ever wants to sit on the bench, and nobody ever just wants to watch because you always think you want to be out there, you want to have fun, you want to be able to play the game you love. It’s hard to sit back but that’s just part of it, you just got to wait your turn and help, and be the best teammate possible in that situation.”
DeVito started to display his potential in last season’s ACC opener on Sept. 15 in the Dome. He helped guide SU to its first victory over Florida State since 1966 by turning a 6-0 lead when he entered midway through the second quarter into a 30-7 victory, finishing 11 of 16 for 144 yards while leading three second-half scoring drives.
His strongest performance came on Oct. 20 in the Dome when he entered with five minutes left and SU trailing North Carolina, 27-20, to engineer a double-overtime comeback victory. He threw for 181 yards and three passing touchdowns, including a 42-yard game-tying score to Nykeim Johnson with 1:39 left in regulation and the game-winning TD pass of four yards to Ravian Pierce.
He finished his redshirt freshman season completing 44 of 87 passes for 525 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions in eight appearances overall as the backup.
“Tommy is awesome,” said SU senior and star defensive lineman, Kendall Coleman. “I like having him on my team, and I’d rather have him here than anywhere else. He’s a great guy, on and off the field, and a spoken leader. You can hear his voice out there and he’s not afraid to tell you what he wants.”
Senior running back Moe Neal said that he believes DeVito is poised to take over a high-powered offense that averaged 40 points and 464 yards per game last season under dual-threat Dungey, who graduated with at least a share of 25 program records, including most career passing yards and total offense.
“(DeVito) is starting to take control more and you can see it a lot,” said Neal, the expected starter at halfback. “He’s grown in his game and he’s coming into that vocal leader. We all already know that he’s got an arm and he’s going to be a good one.”
The Orange announced a program-record 9,000 new season tickets as of last Friday, and single-game tickets for its much-anticipated home opener against defending national champion and top-ranked Clemson — scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 14 in the Carrier Dome to be nationally-televised on ABC — are sold out.
“It’s going to be fun, honestly, just playing football is fun and that’s why I started playing the game when I was younger,” DeVito said. “This season, I’m just going to have a lot of fun with it.”
SYRACUSE FOOTBALL, BRIEFLY
Coach: Dino Babers (4th year, 18-19 overall at SU; 55-35 career).
2019 preseason rank: No. 22 (AP Top 25 and Coaches Poll).
2018 record: 10-3 overall, 6-2 ACC; Won Camping World Bowl.
Aug. 31: at Liberty, 6 p.m.
Sept. 7: at Maryland, noon
Sept. 14: vs. Clemson, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 21: vs. Western Michigan, TBD
Sept. 28: vs. Holy Cross, TBD
Oct. 10: at North Carolina State, 8 p.m.
Oct. 18: vs. Pittsburgh, 7 p.m.
Oct. 26: at Florida State, TBD
Nov. 2: vs. Boston College, TBD
Nov. 16: at Duke, TBD
Nov. 23: at Louisville, TBD
Nov. 30: vs. Wake Forest, TBD
SYRACUSE FOOTBALL, POSITION BY POSITION
Redshirt sophomore Tommy DeVito enters the season as the unquestioned starter while a pair of program veterans — redshirt senior Clayton Welch and redshirt junior Rex Culpepper — are vying for the backup role. The 6-foot-5 Welch was listed as the backup on the preseason depth chart and operated behind DeVito for spring practices, but the inspirational Culpepper, a testicular cancer survivor who shifted to tight end last year before moving back to QB, reportedly delivered strong scrimmage performances during camp to tighten the gap.
Senior Moe Neal is a candidate for the Doak Walker Award presented to the nation’s top running back after producing a career average of 5.4 yards per carry in a committee role through his first three seasons, a mark that ranks fifth in SU history. He is expected to lead a loaded backfield and could challenge to become SU’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Jerome Smith in 2012 but will have several young, promising backs expected to share the load. Junior and Oklahoma transfer Abdul Adams, who scored two rushing touchdowns in his Orange debut at the 2018 Camping World Bowl, should be firmly in the mix along with sophomore Jarveon Howard, a bruising power back who scored seven rushing touchdowns as the primary goal-line and short-yard option in 2018.
Wide receivers/tight ends
DeVito enters the year lacking a proven No. 1 threat at wide receiver but will operate with a deep and versatile group filled with potential. Senior Sean Riley is the leading returner and has made an impact in the slot and as one of the most dangerous kick and punt returners in the ACC. The 5-foot-8, 170-pound Riley enters the year ranked seventh in SU history and first among active ACC players with 3,678 all-purpose yards and led SU with 64 catches in 2018. Nykeim Johnson (5-8, 172) should provide another speedy option from the slot after catching 41 passes last year to rank third on the team. The outside combination of 6-2 sophomore Taj Harris and 6-1 redshirt junior Trishton Jackson also offer immense potential. Harris set the SU rookie records for catches (40) and receiving yards (565) last year while Jackson, a transfer from Michigan State, debuted in the Camping World Bowl with three catches for 27 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown catch. Junior Aaron Hackett and Chris Elmore are listed as the top tight ends on the depth chart. Hackett will likely fill a similar role to that of graduated Ravian Pierce as a blocker and occasional pass-catcher, while Elmore is a physical lead blocker that will likely shift between tight end and fullback.
Redshirt senior Evan Adams and redshirt junior Aaron Servais will hope to stabilize a unit that lost three top-end starters to graduation, and the evaluation process up front is likely to extend into the season. Adams (6-6, 352) has logged 33 career starts to anchor the group as a guard while Servais (6-6, 273) started each of the last two seasons at center and will likely start at right tackle for Week 1. Redshirt junior Sam Heckel (6-4, 280) is another experienced returner that has logged 13 starts and played in 25 games, and seems likely to start at center or guard. Ryan Alexander (6-3, 307), a graduate transfer from South Alabama, has held down the starting left tackle position throughout preseason training camp, while redshirt sophomores Darius Tisdale (6-4, 295) and Dakota Davis (6-5, 327) figure to compete for a primary role along with redshirt freshman Carlos Vettorello (6-4, 289) and freshman Anthony Red (6-5, 281).
SU will enter the season with its strongest defensive unit during head coach Dino Babers’ tenure and it will be anchored by the star senior duo of defensive ends Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson. Coleman registered 10 sacks last season, including an SU record three in the Camping World Bowl. Classmate Alton Robinson also finished with 10 QB takedowns last year, and the duo helped the Orange finish seventh nationally and second in the ACC with 43 sacks. Fellow senior McKinley Williams, who has started 15 of 36 games and registered 9.5 career tackles for loss, was expected to be a major contributor but is out indefinitely following a leg injury suffered during preseason practice. Redshirt junior Josh Black is expected to start at defensive tackle while senior K.J. Ruff fills in at nose tackle. Junior Kinglsey Jonathan, listed as a backup defensive end on the preseason depth chart, is an intriguing prospect to watch after recording 25 tackles, 7.5 for loss, and six sacks in limited snaps across 21 career appearances.
SU will need to replace its two leading tacklers from last season — Ryan Guthrie (107 tackles), who made the All-ACC second team, and Kielan Whitner (100) — each of whom started at linebacker. SU’s third linebacker from last year, Shyheim Cullen, also left the program and left behind an unproven group at this position. Seniors Andrew Armstrong and Lakiem Williams have maintained their edge to start for Week 1 throughout the preseason, and are hoping to make a similar impact that Guthrie and Whitner provided last year as first-year starting seniors.
Sophomore safety Andre Cisco was named to the Associated Press Preseason All-American first team and five different award watch lists, and will enter the year as one of the top defensive backs in the nation after tying for the national lead with seven interceptions a season ago. He is joined at safety by fellow returning starter, hard-hitting senior Evan Foster. Redshirt senior Chris Frederick will again display his strong coverage skills at cornerback and has made 31 straight starts entering the season to lead the Orange, while tantalizing sophomore Ifeatu Melifonwu is expected to start as the other outside CB after showing flashes prior to a midseason injury that prematurely ended his freshman campaign. Sophomore Trill Williams, another playmaker that brings a potent size and speed combination to the SU secondary, is expected to guard opposing wide receivers in the slot. Sixth-year senior Antwan Cordy, who returned for his final season of eligibility following a myriad of injury-related setbacks, and senior Scoop Bradshaw should each provide strong depth.
SU was led by one of the top special teams units in the nation in 2018 and brings back many of the key contributors. Redshirt sophomore Andre Szmyt led the nation in field goals made and attempted (30-for-34) while setting the FBS record for most field goals by a freshman. Szmyt is looking to join former Florida State kicker Sebastian Janikowski (1998-1999) as the only repeat winners of the Lou Groza Award, presented to the nation’s top kicker. Redshirt senior Sterling Hofrichter is a preseason candidate for the Ray Guy Award, given annually to the nation’s best punter, and enters the season ranked third on the SU career list with an average of 42.9 yards per punt. Senior Sean Riley is again expected to be the primary kick and punt returner as he looks to climb the SU career all-purpose yardage list, and junior Nykeim Johnson is another potential threat in the return game.
PREDICTION: SU shattered even the most optimistic expectations last year en route to its first 10-win campaign since 2001. The Orange now enters the season with a new starting QB and questions along the offensive line, but with the intriguing DeVito under center paired with a strong, deep arsenal of skill-position players in Babers’ high-octane attack, the offense should be able to maintain its high level of production. The SU defense, meanwhile, is miles ahead of recent past renditions entering the year and the pass-rushing tandem of Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson up front combined with All-American safety Andre Cisco leading a strong group in the back end, could make the Orange one of the most feared units in the ACC. The pieces seem to be in place for SU to prove that its 2018 campaign was indeed a breakout and not a fluke. Expect the Orange to post its second straight double-digit win total but this time, locking it up before its bowl game with a 10-2 regular season.