Hunt sparks new life into Syracuse offense

Amid a two-week marathon of preparation for Saturday's game against No. 3 Clemson, Syracuse coach Scott Shafer found a few spare minutes to watch some NFL football, checking in on a game in which New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees racked up one big play after another. What struck Shafer wasn't so much Brees' methodical dismantling of another defense with his arm, but how he used his feet to move the pocket, keep plays alive and turn broken plays into successful ones.

When Shafer arrived on the practice field the following day, he surveyed his new starting quarterback, Terrel Hunt, and saw many of those same moves. It's something that came as a surprise even to Shafer.

"He was sluggish doing that in preseason camp because he knew he couldn't get hit," Shafer said. "You can only manufacture a game situation so much."

That's part of the reason why Hunt lost Syracuse's quarterback competition to Drew Allen at the end of fall camp. But his ability to showcase his mobility once he finally got into a game earned him a full-time job moving forward, and it's earned the Orange a renewed confidence as they get set to kick off their inaugural ACC campaign.

"I've been impressed with his pocket presence and he understands the reasons he's played well is he hasn't forced things," Shafer said.

After an 0-2 start, Shafer finally gave Hunt his chance in Week 3 against Wagner. The sophomore responded by completing 31-of-39 passes for 446 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions in his two extended outings, and Syracuse's offense has topped 50 points in both games.

It's significant progress, tailback Jerome Smith said, but the groundwork for the rejuvenation started in the spring, before Allen, a transfer from Oklahoma, arrived.

"We have a little more chemistry with [Hunt] because he was here in the springtime when we were going through the new offense," Smith said. "Between extending plays and our chemistry being better, that's the difference."

Hunt's mobility and his rapport with his receivers certainly help, but the nagging question for Syracuse fans is just how much of this offensive rebirth is a product of playing two overmatched opponents.

Allen's two losses came against talented Big Ten teams in Penn State and Northwestern. Hunt will see his first real competition this week against a fearsome Clemson defense that has racked up 15 sacks in four games.

"He needs to throw the ball to the guys that are open," Shafer said. "Last week, he threw to 11 different guys. That'll help us offensively. We don't want him to press."

There doesn't figure to be much time for Hunt to get his feet wet in ACC play either. Clemson's dynamic offense, led by Heisman candidate Tajh Boyd, will be tough to slow down, which means it's more likely that Hunt and the offense are going to need to keep pace.

"Our job will be to keep up and be able to score a lot of points," Smith said. "I've got faith our defense will do their part, but as long as we have each other's back, I think we'll be fine."

Hunt won't be alone, of course. Smith has been impressive running the ball regardless of the quarterback. He's scored in all four games so far this season, and his seven touchdowns lead all ACC players.

As much as a dynamic running game or an upstart quarterback, Shafer is hoping a rejuvenated crowd can help carry Syracuse to an upset of the Tigers.

Syracuse officials said Saturday's game has been a hot ticket thus far, and Shafer has made a point of encouraging fans to pack the stadium and make life difficult for Boyd and the Clemson offense.

"My message to them is to come out here and show the ACC the Dome is one hell of a hard place to play in," Shafer said.

It's an uphill battle, but a win wouldn't be unprecedented. Syracuse silenced another Heisman candidate, Teddy Bridgewater, just last year, knocking off Louisville -- then ranked No. 9 in the country -- last November, and quieting Geno Smith and the high-flying West Virginia offense in each of the past two seasons.

Whether Hunt can help lead a similar upset won't be certain until the game begins, but Shafer said he feels good about their chances.

"He's off to a good start, and he's a great competitor," Shafer said. "That competitive spirit he has is something you can't really measure."