The Syracuse offense is a cipher, covered with secret sauce, buried in a puzzle. Last year, it showed glimpses of brilliance, scoring a robust 50 points in an improbable upset of then-No. 7 Virginia Tech. Then there was the 34 points Syracuse put together in a heartbreaking, triple-overtime loss to then-No. 25 Auburn.
But while the gap between potential and actual sometimes seemed close together, there were other games where the gap resembled more of a canyon.
For every Hokie win, there were two more ugly losses to mope over.
There was the seven lonely points the offense mustered against West Virginia. Just a week before, Syracuse did the unthinkable and lost to lowly Temple, a feat only accomplished nine other times in the 34 other meetings between the teams.
No two players better fit this Jekyll and Hyde persona than R.J. Anderson and Johnnie Morant.
Anderson took the starting job away from Troy Nunes two years ago, leading the Orangemen to the Insight.Com bowl. But a year later, threw a career-high eight interceptions and a woeful 43.3 pass percentage and switched spots with Nunes again.
With Nunes out of the picture, backup Perry Patterson lost due to an injury in spring ball and Xzavier Gaines and Matt Hale not ready to assume the position, Anderson will be taking every snap, regardless of his performance.
“I’m going to get the swagger back,” Anderson said. “When you go 4-8 you have to have a bad feeling and have a chip on your shoulder.”
Anderson did some ‘soul searching’ after last year and went back to ground zero. The quarterback said he feels as confident as ever, and has recaptured the respect on the team. Perhaps better worded, those who didn’t have confidence in Anderson aren’t on the team anymore.
When asked if there was hostility in the locker room directed towards him, Anderson didn’t shy away from the volatile chemistry on last year’s team.
“Maybe,” Anderson said. “Sometimes it felt like that. More so the older guys.”
The senior class this year, Anderson said, is more on the same page. Anderson is the unquestioned leader of the offense.
“I think he works at it each day,” head coach Paul Pasqualoni said of Anderson. “I think he’s focused each day. I think he understands the challenge. I also think that he would like to prove that he is a leader and can lead the team. We won big games with him the year before that. He doesn’t have to run around with a big red S on his chest. He just needs to be who he is.”
When Morant rolled into town as a freshman, many looked at him like Superman. Morant is the more enigmatic of the two because of his unlimited potential and his relatively limited performance to date.
Morant’s high school career had many thinking he would be a surefire NFL receiver. The accolades were endless. He was a Parade All-American receiver. PrepStar ranked him as the No. 3 overall receiver in the nation. Tom Lemming pinned him as the No. 24 recruit.
He was touted to be the go-to man. He was supposed to follow in the line of Syracuse greats like Marvin Harrison and Kevin Johnson.
Morant possesses all the physical tools of a great receiver. The 6-foot-4, 223-pound receiver is fast, has soft hands, and owns a frame that the 5-foot-11 David Tyree could only dream of. Yet when all was said and done last year, Morant found himself looking up towards Tyree, who bested him in touchdowns and yards.
The only time Morant grabbed the headlines away from fellow receivers Tyree and Jamel Riddle was for his off the field escapades.
Morant’s been suspended three times, the most public of the three coming last September when Morant sat on the sidelines for three games following an altercation with Syracuse lacrosse player Mike Springer.
Morant followed a strong sophomore year by losing his starting job in his third year. His statistics were skewed partially because of the suspension, but Morant didn’t record a single touchdown last year in his nine games (two of them starts). He finished with 327 yards, third on the team, behind Tyree and Riddle.
Bobbled and dropped passes became the story of his season. Another year to shine was wasted.
Fortunately for Morant, there still is a chance for greatness.
With one year left, teammates and coaches think that Morant has turned the corner. The necessary evidence for that conclusion is there.
Perhaps motivated by many of his peers from his recruiting class going to the NFL, Morant’s attitude is noticeably different. Described as an “all-smiles guy” by teammate Thump Belton, Belton has put a face on the new Morant.
“It ain’t no smiles anymore,” Belton said.
Said Pasqualoni: “I see Johnnie Morant working awfully, awfully hard to have the kind of season that we all think and hope and pray and expect that kid to have.”
Many of the hopes and prayers also focus on the lesser-known Belton.
Always outspoken and never duplicated, Belton’s hand shot up when a reporter asked linebacker Rich Scanlon who he felt would be the biggest surprise of the year.
Belton has played behind two current NFL players in his time at Syracuse, most recently Chris Davis, who can be found at the Seattle Seahawks training camp.
In his southern twang, Belton listed his credentials for the job.
“I bring blazing speed. Good strength. And a personality. That’s it. That’s all you need.”
While Belton is known as a media favorite among the Syracuse community, he hopes that his blocking, and the occasional carry, will help NFL scouts target Belton.
“We’re negotiating (carrying the ball),” Belton said. “We gotta split that up some how. If we win, it don’t matter. I can snap too. I’m ready to snap. Give me two more carries, and they’ll never have to hear me again.”
Belton’s penchant for talking has him eyeing a Sept. 6 date with North Carolina, where he grew up.
“They’re going to have to snatch me off that field,” Belton said, “because I’m going to talk so much junk.”
So much, Belton said, that he was going to be the Terrell Owens of Syracuse football. No sharpies though, he said.
Belton will lead the way for the workhorses of the Syracuse offense, junior Walter Reyes and sophomore Damien Rhodes.
Reyes became a nightmare for opposing defenses in his last five games, averaging 114.6 yards and 6.4 yards per carry on top of his 10 touchdowns.
“He’s very explosive and very strong,” Pasqualoni said. “Not only is he very explosive and strong, he’s very, very fast.”
“We passed the ball a lot and he split time and he ran for (1135) yards and (17) touchdowns,” Anderson said. “Imagine if he ran at another school. He would’ve ran for 2,000.”
All Reyes ever needed was an opportunity to show what he could do.
“Give him the ball,” Anderson said, “boom, 80 yards, we’re off the field.” Reyes’ partner is Rhodes, a sophomore with blinding speed.
“We do speed school together, but that don’t work out too well,” Belton said. “I thought I was getting faster, but he always puts me away by like, 10 yards.”
Rhodes totaled 568 yards last year with seven touchdowns. But Rhodes wasn’t limited to the backfield, as he compiled 1,268 all-purpose yards, good for sixth in the Big East.
The key for Rhodes this year will be consistency. Though Rhodes started off strong last year (he opened with 82 yards on 14 carries against BYU), Rhodes gained just 10 yards on four carries against West Virginia.
“You’re going to see a guy this year who’s maybe 15 pounds heavier and a whole heck of a lot stronger,” Pasqualoni said. “The (running back) position is exciting and it’s absolutely one of the strong parts of our team.”
The success of Rhodes and Reyes will invariably depend upon the performance of the offensive line. The group returns four out of five starters with senior center Nick Romeo leading the group.
Senior Kevin Sampson and junior Adam Terry, who both started all 12 games last year, return at the tackle positions. Sophomore Quinn Ojinnaka, the first true freshman to start on the offensive line since 1986, will backup Sampson.
Guards Matt Tarullo and Jason Greene solidify the front line.
“I like what (Greene) got done as a young, unknown player in the spring,” Pasqualoni said, when asked who the biggest surprise on the offense would be.
“I think they’re a very much improved group,” Pasqualoni said of his offensive line. “Over a year ago, we didn’t know what we were going to deal with. To me, they’re one of the strengths of the team.”
Aside from the aforementioned Morant, the Orangemen have a deep unit at wide receiver including Riddle, and juniors Jared Jones (213 yards, two touchdowns) and Andre Fontenette (12.7 yards per catch).
Riddle, the team’s best receiver last year, compiled 41 catches for 626 yards. At tight end, Lenny Cusumano and Joe Donnelly return. Each played all 12 games, with Donnelly collecting 148 yards on 12 receptions.
Up and down the starting unit, the Orangemen have penciled in starters that all have college game day experience. This means that all of them suffered through the dismal 4-8 season last year.
The best way for the Orangemen to avert a repeat performance will be to ditch the schizophrenic personality and develop one that helped them to 15 straight winning seasons before last year.
“We just have to play and be consistent each week,” Anderson said, “and maintain that intensity every week.”
For the seniors on the offense, it will be their last opportunity to do so.
“It’s in our hands,” Anderson said. “We control our own destiny.”
This article originally ran in the August 2003 edition of The Juice.