Tempo can only help Syracuse's Hunt

On the offensive side of the ball, this offseason has been all about tempo for the Syracuse Orange.

Last season, the Orange ran one play every 24.8 seconds of possession time (just a tick faster than the league’s midpoint) and averaged just 74 plays per game (11th in the ACC). The results weren’t awful, coach Scott Shafer said, but they could’ve been better, and so Syracuse is focused on finding ways to speed things up at the line of scrimmage. (Note: We wrote extensively about ACC offensive tempo last week.)

Offensive lineman Sean Hickey talked up the new procedures at ACC Kickoff this week, noting simplified verbiage for the line and a new process to get plays in from the sideline that will allow quarterback Terrel Hunt to focus on reading the opposing defense rather than relaying the play call to his teammates.

And to be sure, Hunt’s ability to thrive in a fast-paced offense will define how successful Syracuse’s tempo gameplan turns out to be.

When it comes to tempo, Hunt’s first season as starter figured to be a mixed bag. Going fast can put a defense on its heels -- but only if the offense knows what it’s doing. For Hunt, 2013 offered some good signs -- but moving faster didn’t seem to help his passing much.

Here are Hunt’s numbers in games against AQ-conference teams when Syracuse moved faster than its season-average tempo of one play every 25.3 seconds and when it didn’t.

Two of Syracuse’s top tempo games last season were against Wagner and Tulane, and those were Hunt’s best performances. But neither team offered much competition. Against AQ-conference adversaries, the numbers between up-tempo and a more methodical approach didn’t matter much. In either case, his decision-making was questionable and his downfield passing was virtually non-existent.

Of course, 2013 was about testing the waters for Hunt, Shafer and Syracuse offensive coordinator George McDonald -- all in their first year on the job. Now, the hope is that the process is more refined, and experience will benefit everyone. That’s certainly what Shafer saw this spring from his quarterback.

“I was impressed with Terrel’s ability to throw to open spots rather than to open men and anticipate making those throws quicker, an area that we challenged him to make improvement,” Shafer said.

Of the 19 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts vs. AQ-conference teams last year, only Virginia’s David Watford averaged fewer yards-per-attempt than Hunt. Watford has since been passed on the depth chart by Greyson Lambert. Of that same group, the only QB to throw for fewer TDs than Hunt’s three was the man he passed on the depth chart in Week 3, Drew Allen.

In other words, there’s nowhere to go but up for Hunt in 2014, and there’s at least reason for optimism as Shafer looks at what he has to work with.

Hunt has talent, and he's clearly taken on a leadership role this spring. Simplifying his pre-snap decision-making process might be just what he needed to buy extra time to read the defense, with the added benefit of moving faster at the same time. Shafer praised an improved group of wideouts, too, and the Orange offensive line will be one of the more experienced groups in the conference.

Better QB play, depth at receiver and experience on the line are key ingredients in moving the offense with speed and precision, and Shafer believes the coaching staff has the rest of the recipe figured out, too.