Since Dino Babers arrived at Syracuse, the Orange have shown tantalizing potential.
In his first year, 2016, a win over No. 17 Virginia Tech produced a postgame speech so passionate, so heartfelt, Babers had his calendar filled for weeks just to answer media requests about one of the most viral moments of the college football season.
Then last year, Syracuse took down No. 2 Clemson on a Friday night on national television, producing yet another round of publicity and praise for all the work Babers, his players and staff have done to get the program headed in the right direction.
The problem, though, is the potential hasn't led to much in the way of consistency. The Orange have proven to be excellent in spots over the past two years, but their big wins haven't led to sustained momentum or a winning season just yet. With spring practice now underway, Babers knows that must change.
"We need a team that's going to be consistently good, not occasionally great. And occasionally great is exactly what we've been, which is something that I literally cannot stand," Babers said in a recent phone interview.
"It's exciting to get the win over Virginia Tech. It's exciting to beat Clemson, and it's fantastic for the branding, but as a football coach, that doesn't get me going. What gets me going is being consistently good and knowing what we can do day in and day out. We've got to get that mentality, and we've got to burn it into this football team. It's not OK to be great one week and be bad the next two or three weeks. We're looking to be consistently good, and if we can get that ingrained in them, we may have a chance to be better."
To that end, Babers noted the physical transformation of his football team since his arrival from Bowling Green. "The way they carry themselves is different," Babers said. "Before, they were big and they were not strong. Now, they're big and they're strong. Their bodies look different, and they have a confidence about them, a swagger."
Quarterback Eric Dungey is high on the physical transformation list, and there's a reason for that. Dungey keyed those big wins over Virginia Tech and Clemson. But he has been injury prone, and without him, the Orange are a radically different team. Syracuse has lost all eight games in which Dungey got injured or missed under Babers, all in November with bowl hopes on the line.
Babers said Dungey has put on 12 pounds this offseason and is now up to 228 pounds, looking more like a linebacker than a quarterback. (Dungey came in to Syracuse weighing 202 pounds.) The reason is simple: He must stay healthy for Syracuse to truly live up to its potential. Putting on the weight will allow him to withstand the hits he is sure to take against some strong defensive lines they are set to face this season.
"His body really reminds me of Jimmy Garoppolo the first time I saw him," said Babers, who was Garoppolo's head coach for two seasons at Eastern Illinois.
"The first time I saw Jimmy, he looked like a quarterback, and I told him. 'Our quarterbacks don't look like quarterbacks. Our quarterbacks look like linebackers. You need to change your body.' And he kind of looked at me and I said, 'Don’t worry, we'll do it for you.' And sure enough, now he looks like a big, strapping guy who could play another position in the NFL, and that's what Eric looks like."
Dungey's ability to run only amplifies his talent, though Babers said they are hoping to limit his carries. They hoped to do that a year ago, but once again Dungey led the team in rushing. With Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal returning, along with some promising freshmen, Babers wants the running backs to pull their weight.
"We're constantly trying to move him away from that, hoping we've got the right type of tailbacks that can take that load over because when it comes to moving the football, you have to have some type of running game," Babers said. "We would like for that running game to be produced by our tailbacks and not by our quarterbacks."
That's one of the many spring issues Babers hopes to address. But the bigger point of emphasis is trying to change the mindset, all toward getting back to a bowl game for the first time since 2013.