When Doug Marrone was hired as Syracuse's coach in December 2008, he almost immediately set about changing just about everything from the Greg Robinson era. But there was at least one gift Robinson left behind.
Offensive lineman Justin Pugh had committed to the Orange during his junior year of high school, before Robinson was fired. Marrone liked what he saw from Pugh enough to keep the scholarship offer valid. Pugh originally given his word to Robinson because Syracuse was the only school who offered him as a junior. He rebuffed late entreaties from Boston College, Rutgers and Temple after Marrone came aboard.
"They stuck with me, so I said I'll stick with them," Pugh said. "And it worked out real well."
Pugh was an under-the-radar recruit until late, and he didn't attract a lot of publicity last season. But all he did was start all 13 games for the Orange at left tackle and earn second-team All-Big East honors as a redshirt freshman at one of the game's most important positions.
Marrone, who played tackle himself, knows the position as well as anyone. He sees a future star -- if not already a current one -- in Pugh.
"He has great feet and balance, and he's a tough kid who's smart," Marrone said. "Whenever friends and scouts come in to see practice, I say, 'Watch this guy. Watch his recovery ability, the way moves his feet.' Now he still has a ways to go as a player. But I guess if he's a first-year starter and is All-Big East he can flat-out play."
Pugh isn't one of those massive, sun-blocking towers of a tackle. He's listed at 6-foot-5 and 287 pounds, and he came to campus weighing just about 270. He makes up for that with quickness.
"Growing up, I was always a little undersized," he said. "So I made sure I had good footwork. As long as I stay in front of those guys, they can't get by me. I also played a little basketball back in the day, so that helps."
Pugh won the starting job last spring, which gave him ample time to prepare for his college football debut. He said he also got a lot of guidance from senior Ryan Bartholomew.
Now he hopes to become one of the cornerstones of an offensive line that returns every starter except Bartholomew at center.
"I want to improve on my leadership skills and make sure people can rely on me," he said. "When the O-line builds that camaraderie, it becomes unstoppable. I want to be the start to that."
Pugh's career is already off to an outstanding start.