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Syracuse offense taking small steps toward improvement

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This spring, the first step toward addressing Syracuse’s offensive woes was, quite literally, the first step.

After each practice, coaches dissected the film and graded each player on the first step he took on every snap. The idea, offensive coordinator Tim Lester said, was that proper execution begins the moment the ball is snapped, and too often last season plays unraveled just as quickly.

“It’s something we’ve really honed in on in the spring is execution levels and the depths of our routes and the first and second step of every play,” Lester said. “That’s what it’ll come down to. If we become more consistent instead of hot and cold, the points follow that.”

There weren’t many points at all last season, with Syracuse ranking 121st nationally in points per game and 126th out of 127 FBS programs in touchdowns per pass attempt. There were myriad explanations — from injuries at quarterback to a change in coordinators midseason — but the bottom line, Lester said, is that the execution was lacking far too often.

Lester, who took over as play caller midseason last year, installed a new offense this spring, and he began with a back-to-basics approach.

“We wanted to get to a point where there was a good portion of our playbook we felt pretty confident running,” Lester said.

That meant less installation and more repetition. Lester didn’t get the full playbook installed, but the Orange showed marked improvement over the course of the spring with the plays they were running. Focusing on the little things made a difference, and getting the stats on those details provided an even bigger push.

“Give them numbers, and they pay attention,” Lester said.

Players were shocked to see they’d taken the wrong first step on nearly half their snaps, but the next day those numbers ticked up — again and again. By the end of the spring, Lester said most players had shown significant improvement.

Of course, that’s not to say it’s smooth sailing in Syracuse either. There’s a long way to go to find answers for all of last year’s struggles, and there’s a serious lack of experience in several key areas — with wide receiver atop the list.

“We’re so young at that spot, and with young guys, they all blossom at different times,” Lester said. “And usually as they’re blossoming, they’ll have a great day and then go back or two great days and go back.”

Never was that more obvious than during Syracuse’s spring game. Over the course of spring practice, Lester estimates his receivers dropped just nine balls. They matched that total in the spring game alone.

Chalk it up to a faster tempo and a bit of nerves, but the problems were clear: Young players make mistakes in new situations. And that underscores the approach Lester is taking moving forward — patience and a focus on the details.

“We have some talent there, and they’re coming into their own,” Lester said. “It’ll be fun to continue to work with them because the potential is there.”