SYRACUSE – Marquis Spruill was a talented linebacker with a problem, and it had nothing to do with his production as a three-year starter for the Syracuse football team.
Simply put, Spruill shied away from any leadership responsibility when as a sophomore he was named SU’s starting middle linebacker, a position that demands a take-charge attitude.
“Leadership is a funny thing,” coach Scott Shafer said. “You can’t anoint leadership. A person not only has to have those abilities but has to want to lead. We knew he had those abilities, but he didn’t necessarily want it.”
Spruill, who had started as a true freshman at an outside spot alongside senior leaders Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue, marched into then-head coach Doug Marrone’s office shortly after replacing Smith in the middle and announced he wanted nothing to do with that part of the job.
“I was still a young guy and just wanted to play football,” he recalled.
And play he did, making second-team All-Big East in his inaugural season in the middle despite being hampered by a nagging leg injury. Imagine the surprise, then, among Orange fans when Spruill (6-1, 224) was displaced last season by diminutive senior Siriki Diabate (5-11, 213), whose vocal leadership played a significant role in sending Spruill back outside.
“It was a blow because I had only played (middle) for one year, and that’s where I really wanted to play,” Spruill said. “But as long as I can help my team out and help us win games, I’m fine with it.”
That is the company line, but the look in Spruill’s eyes and the tone of his voice revealed the anguish he felt. In the offseason, with Marrone off to Buffalo and Shafer, who for three years was SU’s defensive coordinator, promoted, Spruill decided to do something about it. He decided to step up.
“Totally,” Shafer said when asked if there was a personality change. “He has been a leader since I got the job. All of a sudden, it became natural. He wasn’t comfortable telling people what to do, and now he is.”
The evidence of Spruill’s personality change became more than anecdotal when his teammates elected him one of four captains for the season, an acknowledgement that a player who once allowed his performance to do the talking had acquired a new dimension – one that has him back in the middle as a senior.
“It was darned near unanimous,” Shafer said of the vote. “I told him, when permission (to lead) is given by your teammates the expectations are higher.”
Spruill, who entered the season as Syracuse’s most experienced defender, already had high expectations. Now, they encompass more than the stat sheet.
“I’m a senior and have been put in the same spot,” he said. “I see the bigger picture now. I get it. I’m cool with being a leader.”
Broyld Looks To Play Major Role
Ashton Broyld arrived on the Syracuse campus in January 2012 as a star high school quarterback from neighboring Rochester, but it was clear from the beginning the gifted athlete (6-4, 221) lacked the mechanics to play the position at the Division I level. Yet, his athleticism demanded that he be utilized immediately somewhere.
The question was, where? Was Broyld best suited to play wide receiver, tight end or running back, or should he move over to the other side of the ball and play linebacker, safety or maybe even a rush end? The staff quickly decided Broyld’s playmaking potential belonged on offense and installed a package of plays – chief among them swing passes and screens – designed to get him the ball in space.
Alas, that plan was eventually shelved when a player who had spent his high school career passing the ball had a devil of a time catching it consistently – even high-percentage 7-yard lobs in the backfield. By midway through preseason camp, Broyld had assumed a traditional tailback role where he was stuck in a logjam of experienced veterans Jerome Smith, Prince-Tyson Gulley and Adonis Ameen-Moore ahead of him and fellow rookies George Morris II and Devante McFarlane nipping at his heels.
The ever-evolving roles – Broyld also tried some quarterback in the wildcat – added to the rookie’s struggles with the playbook, and a nagging leg injury exacerbated the situation for a player many Orange fans believed was destined for instant stardom.
As the season wore on and Smith and Gulley erupted with breakout seasons, Broyld’s playing time diminished. He played in only eight of the team’s 13 games, getting 36 carries and catching seven passes.
“It’s hard because you never really get a chance to get comfortable,” he said. “Everything was different for me. I had never blocked a linebacker, you know what I mean?”
Everything was different, but one thing remained the same as spring ball commenced with Shafer taking over for Marrone. Broyld still had no set position, a mystery that deepened when he missed most of the spring with another injury.
In reality, there should have been no mystery at all. With all of the above-noted tailbacks retuning, the team bidding farewell to its top-two receivers in Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales and nobody on the roster stepping in and taking over, Broyld is back in the H-back role originally envisioned for him. He cut way down on his drops during camp and slowly progressed from a “prove it” player to a featured receiver.
“I’m getting way more comfortable catching the ball,” he said. “That’s all I’m worried about, watching the ball into my hands. And after that, everything else will work out.”
After that, Syracuse coaches envision a player big enough to create a mismatch vs. opposing safeties and elusive enough to shake free from linebackers. It is the potential they saw last season.
“I hate the word potential because it means you haven’t done anything yet,” Broyld said. “But the fact is, I haven’t done anything yet. I’m working. I’m ready to show people.”
If he can produce in games the way he did in camp, the Orange will have the offensive threat envisioned when Broyld arrived.