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College football: SU enjoys Fort Drum experience


FORT DRUM — Syracuse University football coach Scott Shafer said that his primary goal for the team’s Fort Drum training camp that ended on Friday was to become “a tight-knit group.”

And to Shafer, what better way for the Orange to prepare for its first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference than to spend a week with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team that is preparing for a fall deployment to Afghanistan.

“We got kids playing football and we got kids getting ready to go to war in a second’s notice,” said Shafer, whose team will open the season on Aug. 31 against Penn State at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

“We get so much out of coming here because we’re dealing with the best-trained military men in the world,” he added. “For our kids to get around those guys that put it on the line for real, it makes us appreciate who they are and gives us a chance to try to emulate them to some degree on the small stage of college football.”

For the second straight year, SU spent a portion of its preseason training camp on base. This year the team arrived on Monday and left Friday morning.

The Orange, which won six of its last seven games to finish 8-5 last year, held regular football practices in the evenings, and went through various military training exercises and small group leadership activities each morning.

Shafer said the immersion of his players with soldiers near the same age is an experience unlike any other among the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

“Inevitably you hear some great stories about guys that are over in Afghanistan or just got back or a big deployment getting ready to go,” he said. “They’ve got a tough task in front of them but they’ve been preparing extremely hard.”

Shafer also said that he believes a speech from Major General Stephen J. Townsend before the team’s intrasquad scrimmage on Thursday resonated with the players.

“The thing I notice about him is he’s got a big personality, and he’s got a ton of kick-ass aggressiveness in the way he approaches his job. He’s extremely passionate about his job, and his leadership here in the military and it just rubs off,” Shafer said.

“It was great because he got to speak to our kids before we went out there and he got to talk about war a little bit, and our military really putting it on the line. He gives his guys all the credit in the world, but you want to talk about a great leader, that guy’s got the ‘It factor.’ He’s a kick-ass commander,” Shafer added.

And while learning to shoot guns and run through Army physical training may not seem to correlate directly with football, Shafer said those activities were planned with that idea of bringing players together and forcing them to rely on each other to solve problems.

Some of the exercises, like the Friday morning paintball fight, were changed from last year in order to better develop that skill set.

“Last year it was like Gettysburg. It was a mess, we were just shooting the hell out of each other,” Shafer said. “This year there’s more of a game plan going into it, teaching our guys how to strategize a little bit.”

Even the recluse of a military base with no Wi-Fi access and poor cell service, Shafer said, is an advantage in itself.

Rather than quarterbacks Drew Allen and Terrel Hunt reading about their battle for the starting spot on Twitter, they were forced to communicate with their teammates.

“We’re taking all those things away, little small group leadership and the opportunity to become a more tight-knit group because we’re out here on our own with bad cell service,” he added.

Shafer said that he hopes the Fort Drum soldiers and their families also took something away from the training camp. Thursday featured a clinic for kids on the Fort Drum Youth Services football teams and a scrimmage open to military families.

“They’re ready for a big deployment up here. And if we can just give them five or 10 minutes a day where they can take their minds off it, their children come out and play football with some big guys from Syracuse, hopefully that’s something that we can give back to them,” he said.

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