SYRACUSE — Doug Marrone's second regular season as head coach for Syracuse University football begins in less than one week.
While a 2009 season ended in mild disappointment with no bowl berth, Marrone said the 4-8 mark was still much improved over the 2008 campaign.
Now, though, Syracuse and Marrone are under pressure from fans and the university to get to that bowl.
"That is the expectation and the goal of this football team and this staff," Marrone said. "We understand our job and we understand we have to win. That is what we're putting all our effort into."
The defense will play a major role early in the season while the offense adjusts to new schemes and new players. Only three starters return on offense, but the defense boasts nine returners, including linebackers Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue and defensive end Chandler Jones.
"It's going to be big for us to cause a lot of turnovers and get the ball to the offense," Smith said. "They can get the feel for it and get a little more seasoned. Just to get them the ball is our job to do."
Smith, a captain, leads the defensive unit after a breakout season last year. He recorded 82 tackles — 60 of them solo — 10.5 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries, four forced fumbles and 6.5 sacks.
He is expected to put up similar numbers this season while simultaneously mentoring the plethora of defensive underclassmen.
"As leaders, that's our job to bring the young guys along to where we think we are right now," he said. "We need to bring the whole culture of the program to where we don't quit."
Jones said the culture changed last season with the leadership of quarterback Greg Paulus, who played just one season with the Orange after receiving a special extra year of eligibility from the NCAA. Paulus played basketball for four years at Duke University.
"He was one of the greatest leaders I've been around," Jones said of Paulus. "It rubbed off on a lot of us. I'm seeing that this camp."
Paulus departed with eight starters and most of the offense, leaving just running back Delone Carter remaining. He showed up to camp in what Marrone called "great shape" despite missing all of spring workouts due to his arrest following a snowball-throwing incident in February.
The school reinstated Carter, and Marrone said he would not suspend the redshirt senior for any games. Carter led Syracuse with 1,021 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Antwon Bailey will serve as the No. 2 running back and has impressed coaches throughout preseason camp.
"I come into the season knowing I'm doing my best with the opportunities afforded to me," Bailey said. "I think Delone's the same way. We both work extremely hard, put the effort in and put the time in. We let the rest take care of itself."
Carter, however, is quarterback Ryan Nassib's top weapon in the backfield. Nassib said that just because Syracuse doesn't return a lot of starters offensively, plenty saw significant game time last year.
"We're deep at a lot of positions," he said. "We have a lot of receivers that can go up and get the ball. This is definitely the hardest summer we've ever worked."
Marcus Sales, Alec Lemon and Van Chew are Nassib's top returning receivers. Sales caught three touchdowns last year, finishing second on the team. Lemon had one TD, and Chew saw limited action, making just six receptions in 2009.
The offense will be tested early and it will be up to the defense to keep scores close. But Syracuse's schedule may provide enough of a cushion so some early mishaps won't lead to defeat.
The Orange travel to play Akron on Saturday. The Zips finished a measly 3-9 last season and aren't expected to do much better this year.
The only challenge for Syracuse in the opening four nonconference games comes from Washington and phenom quarterback Jake Locker in Week 2. Then, the Orange returns home on Sept. 18 to play Maine and Colgate the following week. Both schools come from the FCS.
Realistically, Syracuse could be 3-1 and possibly 4-0 heading into Big East play, needing only two or three wins over the final eight games to become bowl eligible. Marrone likes his chances.
"Going back to last year, I was disappointed in the win total," he said. "Going back and looking at some of the things that we're doing — changing the culture and creating structure, discipline and leadership — we have won a lot of those battles. Now our goal is to make sure that carries onto the field in wins. I'm expecting us to be better and be a more competitive football team."