When does a lackluster and mistake-filled intrasquad scrimmage pass for progress? When the team involved has just five victories over Division I-A opponents in the last four years, that's when. Such is the case at Syracuse, where new coach Doug Marrone takes over a program that has sunk to the depths of the Big East. In 104 plays last Saturday, the Orange offense racked up more penalties (10) than touchdowns (7), but the mood inside the Carrier Dome afterward was ebullient nevertheless, as players gathered in the end zone for a sloppy yet stirring rendition of the school's alma mater. "That was the first feeling of a unified team that I've had in a long time," said junior center Jim McKenzie.
Taking over for Greg Robinson, who was fired with two games remaining in a 3--9 season (ending his four-year run with a 10--37 record), Marrone has made it a priority to establish standards and discipline. He banned facial hair, required collared shirts for media interviews and made all spring drills full-contact. A native of the Bronx and a Syracuse offensive lineman from 1983 through '85, Marrone must now sell the team's new image to recruits. According to Super Prep, just three of the 14 players who signed letters of intent in February were among the top 95 prospects in the Northeast.
To strengthen the school's recruiting network, Marrone filled out most of his staff with coaches who have roots and experience in the area. But the Orange won't just scout regionally. "We're going to be in California," says Marrone, 44, who was the Saints' offensive coordinator the past three seasons. "We're going to be in Texas. We want the best players we can get."
Giving Marrone reason for optimism is a handful of talented skill-position players. Led by bruising junior Delone Carter, the tailback position is so deep that the top returning rusher from last year, junior Doug Hogue, was moved to linebacker. The offense will get a boost from the return of sure-handed wideout Mike Williams. The 6'2", 204-pound junior caught 60 passes for 837 yards and 10 TDs in 2007, but sat out last season because of a cheating allegation; he earned his way back into school by taking classes last fall at Springfield (Mass.) Technical Community College.
There's not enough talent on campus for Syracuse fans to expect much more this fall than a second straight 3--9 finish. But as the Orange showed on Saturday, progress isn't always pretty.
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Cory McCartney, on Mark Richt's rebuilding job at Georgia, at SI.com/bonus.