The penultimate game of Sean Tucker’s freshman season wasn’t one for the history books — for himself, Twitter or Syracuse football.
A close 36-29 loss to North Carolina State at the Carrier Dome dropped Syracuse to 1-9 on the season, and a 16-carry, 18-yard performance from Tucker was the most inefficient of his young career.
It was one of just three performances in his 29 college games in which he didn’t cross the 40-yard plateau. The other two? Against Pitt.
Tucker made his college debut against Pitt in 2020, racking up 23 yards — albeit on just four carries. And when he met Pitt’s defense again last season, it resulted in his worst performance of a strong sophomore campaign.
Pitt limited Tucker to just 29 yards on 13 carries, Kenny Pickett threw four touchdown passes to cement his Heisman Trophy candidacy and Pitt won a 31-14 game.
“You know what, Sean Tucker, a year ago they were running the ball a lot,” Pat Narduzzi said Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “I think they might have rushed for 28 yards on us total, total offense last year.”
Syracuse mustered just 25 yards on 30 attempts last season. Tucker accounted for 0.02% of his rushing yards. It was a complete team effort to eliminate Syracuse’s rushing threat. But unlike last season, Garrett Shrader has turned into a serviceable college quarterback. And he knows how to get Tucker the ball in the passing game.
“You know, (Tucker’s) fast,” Narduzzi said. “They will get him the ball out of the backfield more. We just talked about the Josh Downs ‘T-bub’. They’re going to run the bubble to him without a question, and they’ve done it already, so you’ve got it on videotape, so it’ll be interesting to see how we defend it this week.”
.@seantucker2020 appreciation post 👏
— ACC Network (@accnetwork) July 26, 2022
Narduzzi said that Tucker’s work in growing as a receiver has been noticeable, already having hauled in 32 receptions through eight games this season, so his two-dimensional impact has never been stronger.
“They’re getting him touches in the passing game,” Narduzzi said. “So, he’s going to line up opposite the tight end a lot. … He’s running a lot of swing routes and different routes, and we’re going to have to tackle him in space.
“Last year we tackled him in the box and fit gaps and all of that. There will be more gaps out there, it will be in space. We have to tackle well in space when he gets the ball out there.”
Tucker is second in the ACC in rushing yards this season, with 758 yards (5.2 yards per attempt) and seven touchdowns on 145 carries. He’s developed into a ready and willing receiving option out of the backfield too, second on the team in both targets and receptions.
While Tucker’s yards per touch is down from last season (from 6.6 yards to 5.7 yards), he’s still the premier offensive threat for ‘Cuse.
Tucker has been stout in shedding would-be tacklers, averaging 2.92 yards after contact per attempt, and he’s been adept in cranking out chunk plays. He’s racked up 21 runs of 10+ yards and 11 runs of 15+ yards (both tied for 24th in college football) this season.
“He’s fast,” Narduzzi said. “He’s elusive. He’s got good wiggle. He’s a really good tailback. We got him in the run game last year, but now you’re going to deal with him in space this year in the passing game.
“He’ll be on the backside of a 3-by-1. He’s running wheel routes. He’s running bubbles over there into the boundary. Shrader looks for him a lot. He’s going to look for Gadsden and look for Sean Tucker. So those are two guys he wants to get the ball to.”
Tucker has lined up in the slot 42 times and out wide 16 times on 198 passing down snaps this season. With an average depth of target of just 1.1 yards, Tucker hasn’t been utilized in running routes, but he has averaged a sturdy 8.6 yards after catch per catch. However, he’s also registered three drops this season.
And Tucker is joined by leading receiver Oronde Gadsden. With 671 yards (16.4 yards per reception) and six touchdowns on 41 receptions, he’s currently second in the conference in yards — serving as Shrader’s favorite target.
With 41 receptions on 54 targets (a 75.9% catch rate), Gadsden has done the majority of his work from the slot this season. With 2.9 yards per route run this season, at an average depth of target of 13.4 yards, he’s been a reliable threat in racking up yards.
And in going 8-of-11 on contested catch targets, Gadsden has made Shrader’s job easier with his big-play ability.
But of course, both Tucker and Gadsden need a quarterback to operate the offense, and Shrader has taken a massive step forward after a ho-hum season.
With Robert Anae, who spent the last five seasons as Virginia’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, as the new offensive coordinator, Narduzzi said that Syracuse’s offense isn’t like it was last season. It’s totally different.
Perhaps most importantly, Anae’s coaching has led to the emergence of Shrader. Shrader completed just 53% of his passes last season, averaging 6.2 yards per attempt with a 9:4 touchdown to interception ratio.
This season, Shrader’s’ completion percentage has jumped to 67%, averaging 8.5 yards per attempt on the way to a career-high 1,629 yards and 14 touchdowns — through just eight games.
Shrader has thrown 11 big-time throws to 11 turnover-worthy plays this season, and while his 9.9-yard average depth of target is slightly below last season, his poise and accuracy in the pocket have improved — even if he is still averaging 3.05 seconds to get the ball out of his hand.
“(Shrader’s) got good delivery,” Archie Collins, Pitt’s secondary coach, said Wednesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “He gets the ball out pretty quickly, got pretty good reads right now. He’s got a good set of receivers that are around him as well, so it’ll be a good challenge for us to be able to try to get those guys stopped.”
And it hasn’t been Shrader simply checking down to Gadsden and Tucker that has led to offensive success this season either. He’s used the intermediate and deep ball to test opposing defenses.
Shrader has completed 11-of-25 pass attempts (44%) over 20 yards this season, racking up 310 yards and four touchdowns. And he’s completed 43-of-65 pass attempts (66%) over 10 yards this season, racking up 708 yards and five touchdowns.
But Shrader isn’t 100% this week, and it isn’t a guarantee he will start this week. With Shrader dinged up, it could be Carlos Del Rio-Wilson’s opportunity to shine this week.
“We’re preparing for both for them,” Narduzzi said. “We won’t change our scout team quarterbacks for that matter, but they’re both guys that are athletic. They both throw the ball well. I don’t know if the offense changes a whole bunch based on who plays.
“I would think just watching the TV copy that he looks like he’s in good condition on the sideline. I don’t know what it is, a lower leg injury or concussion, got kneed I think on play 24 and he looked wobbly at that time, so I don’t know what it is, but he didn’t have a towel over his head and light wasn’t bothering him it didn’t seem in the Dome. So, we’ll see.”
Del Rio-Wilson, a transfer from Florida, has played in five games this season. He’s attempted 27 passes, completing 14 attempts, for 222 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He doesn’t offer the same rushing threat as Shrader, but he’s still a willing athlete.
Syracuse, with Shrader under center, is the fifth highest-scoring offense in the ACC, averaging 32.6 points per game. At 6-2, with back-to-back losses to Clemson and Notre Dame, ‘Cuse is still No. 20 in the country. It’s a game on Pitt’s radar for obvious reasons.
“Getting a win this week would mean a lot,” SirVocea Dennis said. “Not just because of who the team is, but definitely because they’re ranked, it’s an ACC game and they’re playing good football this year.
“November is for contenders, not pretenders.”