Out with the old, in with the new

After losing multiple starters and coaches this offseason, Syracuse football looks to build on last years success with some familiar faces, including a friendly competition at quarterback.

John Kinder knows whoever takes over for Ryan Nassib as the starting quarterback for Syracuse’s football team will have big shoes to fill.

Over 9,000 yards. 791 pass completions. 70 touchdowns; the numbers speak for themselves.

That’s why the competition for Nassib’s old spot is so fierce as spring practice kicks into high gear.

Kinder is one of three quarterbacks fighting to lead the Orange on opening day of the 2013-14 season against Penn State at MetLife Stadium. But the 6-foot-3-inch, 192-pound senior doesn’t view either junior Terrel Hunt or redshirt senior Charley Loeb as the enemy.

“We’re all great friends, and we’re all fairly competitive people, so it’s fun,” Kinder said. “I would use that word more than anything. It doesn’t get tense between us; we see a guy make a good throw, and we cheer him on. We’re very supportive of each other.”

Kinder may have a slight edge in finding the job, based on past results. But although the veteran signal caller played a few minutes against USC and Stony Brook in 2012, the reps have been evenly split between Kinder, Hunt and Loeb.

In Saturday’s scrimmage, Kinder stood out by tossing a 20-yard touchdown pass to Keenan Hale, bouncing back from a poor, underthrown attempt just minutes before.

“None of us have had the opportunity to play very much, so right now, we’re trying to settle in and come into our own,” Kinder said. “We all just try to learn from each other.”

The quarterback position isn’t the only one in flux for Syracuse as it winds its way into the second week of spring camp. Veterans such as Alec Lemon, Marcus Sales, Justin Pugh and Brandon Sharpe declared for the 2013 NFL Draft, and former defensive coordinator Scott Shafer occupies the head coach spot recently held by newly-ordained Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone. In all, seven coaches have been added to the staff for the Orange’s opening season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“It’s great. It’s a lot of fun. I’m enjoying the process,” Shafer said after Saturday’s practice. “We’ve got a great group, a great staff and a great group of kids working hard out there. There are a lot of new things we’re working on, and new terminology. But the thing I’m most pleased with is that we’ve seen progress made every day.”

Finding a starting quarterback is important, but Shafer prefers to focus on the task at hand: preparing his team for its upcoming schedule.

“My sense of urgency is to prepare our quarterback position to win at Penn State,” Shafer said. “Right now, it’s as simple as that.”

Shafer also prepared his run game well, and Kinder is confident the ground attack will play a larger role in the Orange offense in 2013. Sophomore running back Ashton Broyld sat out Saturday with a high ankle sprain, and senior Prince-Tyson Gulley also has a lower leg injury. Both will sit out the remainder of spring practice.

Injuries have given SU a chance to test its depth. Sophomore running back George Morris sparkled alongside senior Jerome Smith to take advantage of the increased touches.

“Honestly, getting more touches is good. But the touches that you do get are the most important,” Smith said. “Take the opportunities that you do get, and just do what you’re supposed to do. There’s a role you fall in to, and once you get the role, you’ve just got to do what you do.”

The injuries could help those role players see increased opportunities in the future.

“It was a good spirited practice, and I liked that,” Shafer said. “Getting some of those faces out on the field because of injuries is a blessing in disguise.”

That doesn’t make choosing a leader any easier. But first-year quarterbacks coach Tim Lester, a recent Elmhurst College transfer, is just trying to learn the new SU language and teach it to his players.

“We’ll get through the easy stuff, and I tell the guys, when we get here in August, we’re going to laugh because we’ll know it all by then,” Lester said. “Right now, we’re just trying to make sure we know the plays and can communicate it to get to the line of scrimmage.”

Lester, who graduated with a degree in math from Western Michigan, has the three quarterbacks running at a nearly identical pace in practice and producing eerily similar numbers. When one player begins to step out, another one will catch his eye in another statistical category that would make most spreadsheet operators dizzy.

“I have more numbers than anything else,” Lester said. “And that’s why it’s so even, though it’s funny to watch the numbers fluctuate as the days go on.”

Practices have been primarily non-contact until now, as the players re-adjust to tackling. But that new element could add a determining factor to the quarterback competition, Lester said.

“They haven’t been hit, and that’ll probably be the most important number,” he added. “I might take all the numbers out, and focus on the numbers from that day. Things change when they are hit.”

Replacing Syracuse’s all-time leader in pass completions, passing yards and passing yards-per-game won’t be easy. Neither will the new departure of last year’s leading receiver Alec Lemon. But the emergence of several role players stepping into more prominent positions could help the Orange forget whom it lost.

“Everybody works well together, and it was great having Ryan (Nassib). But these other guys are going to have to step up and do their job,” Jerome Smith said. “As long as everybody is doing their jobs, it will all work out. We don’t have to worry about anything.”

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