Syracuse's Dino Babers hopes to avoid injury jinx
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Syracuse coach Dino Babers has a theory about his system -- year two, game four is when it should begin to purr.
It happened in his two previous head coaching stops at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green. Whether it happens again with the Orange is anybody's guess, but Babers has a distinct goal.
"I want to be consistent," he said. "If you're consistent, you're going to be good. It's when you're occasionally great that you're going to have ups and downs. We're trying to look at being consistently good."
For the record, the fourth game of 2017 is in Death Valley against LSU.
At least Babers has a foundation to build on. Syracuse, coming off its second straight 4-8 season and 2-6 finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference, has 20 starters returning from 2016, most of any team in the nation. That's mainly because of an injury-plagued season that saw the Orange lose too many starts among its top players, forcing newcomers into the fray earlier than expected.
"The bottom line is we weren't able to keep the same group of guys on the field for a long period of time," Babers said. "We need to be lucky in that department. We're not deep, but we are good on the top, and if we can keep some of those good players around for a long period of time it's going to give us a better opportunity to be better."
Unfortunately, the injury bug already has hit this year. Standout redshirt junior left guard Aaron Roberts suffered a left knee injury during summer conditioning and will miss the entire season. Roberts started all 12 games last season and led the Orange in both snaps played (968) and knockdown blocks (39).
Offensively, if he can stay healthy, junior quarterback Eric Dungey figures to be the key cog after finishing 11th in the country in total offense (330.2 yards a game). Dungey missed the final three games of last season and also missed four games as a freshman because of at least one concussion.
Overall, the Orange had 5,290 yards offensively, the second-highest total in school history, and gained over 500 yards five times -- and that was pretty much accomplished without a run game. The Orange averaged under 120 yards rushing and 3.2 per carry to rank 116th in the nation. Dontae Strickland (566 yards, 162 carries) figures to be the workhorse again.
Other things to know about Syracuse:
Since the end of last season, the 6-foot-4 Dungey has added 15 pounds of mainly muscle and now weighs over 220. This season also represents something new for Dungey -- he's never been in the same offensive system two straight years.
"He has a peace about him," Babers said. "Sometimes last year I thought there was an uneasiness about him."
Senior linebackers Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett combined for 211 tackles in 2016, each eclipsing the 100-tackle mark on a defense that allowed 38.6 points and 501 yards per game. They expect a different experience the second time around under Babers.
"We know what they expect from us, what they want us to do," Bennett said. "A lot of guys are more comfortable. It feels like everyone is just more bought-in than last year."
That includes standout safety Antwan Cordy, who missed 10 games last season with a forearm injury.
One starter not returning is WR Amba Etta-Tawo, who as a graduate transfer had 94 catches for 1,482 yards and 14 TDs to earn All-America honors. Returning, though, is senior Ervin Philips, who was overshadowed by his teammate despite 90 catches for 822 yards and six scores. Philips ranked eighth nationally in receptions per game (7.5) and is second among active ACC receivers in career receptions (134).
"It's definitely smoother than last year," Philips said. "We're able to play faster. We've got a lot more knowledge."
Babers became a media darling last year with his postgame speech after the Orange upset No. 17 Virginia Tech at home in mid-October. Syracuse then went out and lost its final two home games -- to North Carolina State and Florida State -- by a combined 80-34. Protecting home turf is a priority if the Orange hopes to attract more fans. Last year's average attendance was just over 32,000 and ranked as the second worst since the Carrier Dome opened in 1980.
At ACC media day when it was Syracuse's turn on the podium most of the camera crews packed up and moved on. Dungey and Franklin, who represented the team, took note and enter the season with a chip on their collective shoulders.
Syracuse opens the season at home against Central Connecticut State on Sept. 1.
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Copyright 2017 by The Associated Press
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