It’s impossible to debate the 2014 season for Syracuse without the discussion eventually boiling down to this: Terrel Hunt is the ultimate wild card.
Earlier this week, coach Scott Shafer said he was sleeping better at night, knowing the offense was in good hands with Hunt.
The stats from last season, however, might warrant a few more sleepless nights.
As a runner in 2013, Hunt was pretty good, and his legs clearly helped Syracuse win enough football games to finish its inaugural ACC season with a winning record.
As a passer, however, Hunt was pretty bad.
Throw out his first two starts against Wagner and Tulane — two clearly overmatched opponents that the Orange pounded by a combined score of 106-17 — and it’s hard to see how Syracuse could be overly enthusiastic going into 2014. In 10 games against teams from AQ conferences, Hunt completed 58 percent of his throws, averaged 5.1 yards per attempt and tossed just three TDs to go with eight interceptions.
How bad are those numbers?
Among the 269 QBs in the last five years who attempted at least 200 passes against AQ teams, here’s where Hunt ranks:
His 5.1 yards per attempt is the third worst
His 8.8 yards per completions is the second worst
His rate of 1 TD pass every 78 attempts is the second worst
His passer rating of 98.3 is the sixth worst
So, why is Syracuse so optimistic that Hunt can develop into a legitimate passing threat in 2014?
“His elbow is way up,” quarterbacks coach Tim Lester said. “[Last year], he had a tendency to be a little bit below 90 degrees, he’d have a sore elbow and he wouldn’t get his hand on top of the ball. The ball would end up sailing on him, and he wasn’t able to throw the deep ball very well, and that also caused him to over-stride a little bit. It was really all one thing. Keep your elbow up and your hand on top of the ball, and you’ll have control over anything you want to do. And he did it. He could see it on film. I think he understands it now. He believes it. He can feel it. It hasn’t been an issue this year.”
Lester said he tried to work on some of the mechanical flaws in Hunt’s delivery last year, but the quarterback had been thrown into the fire, taking over the starting job in Week 4, and messing with technique is tough in season.
When the season ended, however, Lester and Hunt went to work.
Hunt’s coaches rave about his work ethic and willingness to make adjustments. His athleticism is impressive enough that he’s capable of making plays with his legs, which should open up more passing opportunities, and he’s smart enough to understand how to read a defense and go through his progressions.
In fact, if there was one encouraging sign amid all the ugly stats last year, it was that Hunt always knew why he’d made a mistake.
“There were deep balls he took shots at, it was the right time to take a shot, and he just wasn’t able to put it where he wanted to,” Lester said. “Late in the year, he’d come off the field and tell me exactly what was going on, he was seeing it all, and that’s a good sign for the future.”
Still, it’s fair to wonder if Syracuse’s optimism is misplaced. After all, how many quarterbacks who posted numbers as bad as Hunt’s managed to turn things around?
If we look from 2008 through last season at every QB who attempted at least 200 passes versus AQ competition, completed fewer than 60 percent of those attempts, averaged less than 6 yards per attempt and threw more INTs than TDs, we get 16 names.
Oddly, five of those seasons came last year, including Hunt and another QB in the ACC — David Watford at Virginia. Three more were seniors, so we can’t collect any data on how they performed the following year. So that leaves us with eight QBs who posted numbers similar to Hunt’s and had an opportunity to come back the next season in hopes of improving.
Here’s the list:
So, how’d they do the year after those dismal seasons?
Craft lost his starting job in 2009 and attempted just 107 passes, with largely the same results (56.1 percent completions, 6.7 YPA, 2 TD, 3 INT).
The same was true for Smith, who threw 96 passes and was just as bad as a senior (57.3, 5.7, 3 TD, 6 INT).
McEntee attempted just 25 passes his senior season after being passed on the depth chart by sophomore Chandler Whitmer.
Fouch threw just one pass the rest of his career.
And, it’s worth noting, that Watford lost his job at Virginia, too.
The bad comparisons
Scheelhaase was a junior when he had his ugly year in 2012. He was on a terrible team, and his numbers suffered. But he’d started as both a freshman and sophomore and posted solid stats, so when his numbers jumped to 66.7 percent completions, 7.6 YPA and a 21-to-13 TD:INT ratio last year, it was more a return to his career norms than a sudden leap in ability.
It’s the same story for Yates, who was far from great as a freshman and sophomore, but showed signs of promise, starting games both seasons. As a senior, he put together his best season, completing 66.4 percent of his passes against AQ schools, including 16 TDs and just eight picks.
The mixed bag
Gilbert’s story is already pretty well known. After his tough sophomore season in 2010, he played in just two games for Texas in 2011. In 2012, he transferred to SMU and showed some mild improvement, tossing 15 TDs to go with 15 INTs, but still completed just 53 percent of his passes and averaged a lousy 5.8 yards per attempt.
But as a senior in 2013, he put it all together, upping his completion percentage to 66.5, his YPA to 7.0 and tossing 21 touchdowns to just seven INTs. Of course, the level of competition for SMU probably won’t match exactly what Hunt will see in the ACC this year.
The happy ending
The crown jewel of the list is Ponder, and he might be Hunt’s best comparison.
Like Hunt, Ponder was thrown into the fire as a sophomore at Florida State. Like Hunt, he was praised for being an incredibly smart QB with exceptional leadership skills and good athleticism. Like Hunt, his problems came more from being raw rather than untalented.
When Ponder returned for his junior season, he looked like a different player. His completion percentage against AQ teams jumped from 54.8 to 68.4. His YPA jumped from 5.8 to 8.2. As a sophomore, he threw 8 TDs and 13 picks against AQ competition. A year later, he reversed those numbers — 12 touchdowns, 7 interceptions. By the time he was a senior in 2010, Ponder was a legitimate prospect, and he ended up being selected in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft.
Is that the future for Hunt?
Obviously that’s a lofty standard, but perhaps it’s not unattainable. The quest begins this week against Villanova, but Syracuse’s coaches and Hunt’s teammates already believe they know the ending.