Syracuse finally back at football practice; pads on Friday

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Syracuse opened football practice this week and it sure felt good after a one-year hiatus, even just wearing shorts.

“It’s not like Christmas morning, but it’s exciting,” coach Dino Babers said. “It’s fun to see the kids ready to go. The biggest thing about this year is that we didn’t have a spring last year. No team did. We’ve got guys on our team that have game experience, which is valuable. That’s money in the bank. It makes you better. But they haven’t had the skillset that they needed to have. Now it’s time to go back and give them the tool belt.”

Syracuse is coming off one of the worst seasons in program history. The Orange finished 1-10 overall and 1-9 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, tied for last with Duke, which beat the Orange in the Carrier Dome.

“We understand what happened last year, but that team has nothing to do with what this team is going to be,” said Babers, in his sixth year with the Orange. “It is entirely a brand new day. The teams change drastically from year to year. We need to seize the day and get after it.”

Practice switches to pads on Friday and Babers said every position is up for grabs, including quarterback. Two-year starter Tommy DeVito was hurt last season and missed the final seven games, all losses, with a lower-body injury. Two other quarterbacks were knocked out of games behind a porous, injury-riddled offensive line that allowed 38 sacks, or 3.45 per game. That left the Orange ranked 118th out of 127 Bowl Subdivision teams.

One of the quarterbacks hurt was freshman JaCobian Morgan, who had two starts. He returns with classmate Dillon Markiewicz. Dual-threat Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader and true freshman Justin Lamson are also in the mix.

“Everybody’s out there competing. This is a different deal,” Babers said. “With so many guys being here (in camp), the lines are longer, you can scrimmage more, you can go up-tempo more, and guys are going to get an opportunity in game-like situations to show and prove what they can do. The best guys win.”

Syracuse also ranked near the bottom of Division I in rushing in 2020, averaging 3.16 yards per carry and 92 yards per game. Before last season began, the top two tailbacks on the depth chart – Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard – decided to opt out. That put freshman Sean Tucker at the top of the list and he delivered a solid showing, rushing for 626 yards, the third most for a true freshman in school history, and four touchdowns. Adams and Howard are back and Babers said they will start at the bottom of the depth chart.

“The cream always rises to the top,” Babers said. “Everybody that sat out, there’s no handcuffs against them. They’re allowed to go as high as they can go, but nothing’s going to be given.”

The Orange offensive line returns all four starters, including Airon Servais for a sixth season. Florida transfer Chris Bleich, a redshirt sophomore who had to sit last year after being denied a waiver to play by the NCAA, will give the unit added experience and depth.

“Most of the guys are out there and it’s good to see that group backed up,” Babers said. “It’s going to be one of the keys to our season, there’s no doubt about it. I really like where we’re going to be.”

Syracuse lost three standout defensive backs when Ifeatu Melifonwu, Trill Williams, and Andre Cisco decided to give the NFL draft a shot later this month.

But the Orange have returning experience on the defensive line in Josh Black (eight sacks, one interception) and lots of it elsewhere in the 3-3-5 defensive scheme: sophomore LB Mikel Jones had a team-leading 69 tackles, including eight sacks and four interceptions; DB Ja’Had Carter had 67 tackles and two interceptions in 10 starts as a freshman; DB Rob Hanna had 10 tackles for loss in nine games as a freshman; redshirt freshman DB Garrett Williams had 64 tackles and 10 pass breakups; and sophomore LB Geoff Cantin-Arku had 63 tackles and four quarterback hurries.

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.