The first day new Syracuse head coach Dino Babers ran his Orange players through spring drills, the workout ended the same way as his first practices with Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green:
with beet-red-faced players tossing their lunches into trash cans.
Babers took in the sight he predicted last spring with a smile. Then he delivered a stern message to his players before they headed to the locker room to shower away the shock-and-awe workout.
“I looked them dead in the eye and I told them, ‘That’s the slowest practice we’re ever going to have and we’ll never be that slow again,’ ” Babers said. “They’re looking at me with doubt until you have the second practice, then the fifth, then the tenth, then the last practice.”
Babers sent his players into the offseason hoping they understood they had to maintain their conditioning over the summer if they expected to compete for a starting job in fall camp.
He likes what he’s seen so far, now that a team that finished 3-9 last year is preparing for the season opener against Colgate Sept. 2 at the Carrier Dome.
“They were much improved and nobody was over a trash can after practice,” said Babers of the first workout last weekend. “So it was a good thing. I think these guys have jumped in with both feet. This is my third time around, and I think they’ve done a good job so far.”
Babers explained conditioning has been the first challenge to transforming Syracuse’s style of play from 2015 to 2016. The fast pace he learned at Baylor as an assistant from 2008 to 2011 is a night-and-day contrast from the grind-it-out style the Orange played under former head coach Scott Shafer.
The players have accepted there is a method to Babers’s madness. They recognize this isn’t his version of “The Junction Boys.”
That’s the story of newly-named Texas A&M coach Bear Bryant taking his 1954 Aggies to arid and drought-stricken Junction, Texas, for 10 days. His workouts in 100-degree heat were designed to run off players; he was left with 35 to start the season. That team finished an infamous 1-9, but the overall tale grew into folklore with subsequent records of 7-2-1, 9-0-1 and 8-3.
“We have faith in the coaches and our strength staff — they’re getting us in shape the way we need to be,” said senior starting center Jason Emrich. “We’re pushing on and doing everything they’re asking us to do.”
Babers made it look easy with a quick reversal of fortune at Eastern Illinois, including a last-to-first rise to win the Ohio Valley Conference his first year in 2012. At Bowling Green, it was about maintaining the success Dave Clawson established to land the Wake Forest job before Babers himself came to the ACC.
A Syracuse turnaround will be tougher, however. Bodies have to be transformed from trench-style football resources to a sleek on-the-run assemblage of streamlined parts.
“I thought the job they did in the summer with strength coach Sean Edinger was outstanding,” Babers said. “Now it’s time for that strength coach to hand the baton back to the football coaches and staff to do our part. Where we end up, I don’t know. But we’re playing hard and fast. It may be over at halftime and it may not be over a halftime. But you’ll have to wait around to see what is about to happen.”
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