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Syracuse begins preseason practice; Marrone upbeat

Associated Press Modified: August 6, 2012 at 9:30 pm •  Published: August 6, 2012
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — The first practice of preseason camp is in the books for the Syracuse Orange, and coach Doug Marrone was understandably upbeat even while contemplating the daunting work that lies ahead.

"We've got a long way to go. We've got a lot of work to put in, a lot of reps to get," Marrone said Monday after the night workout. "We're not where we want to be right now."

The session, scheduled for two hours, lasted 17 minutes longer than it was supposed to, and Marrone said that's a good indication of how much work has to be done for the Orange to become a good football team.

"We were very excited about transitioning back," said Marrone, starting his fourth season at his alma mater. "These kids have been working a long time, but right now ... we've got a lot of hard work ahead of us. You have to finish the practice in the amount of time.

"That's the first thing that you have to do."

Syracuse went 5-7 last year, 1-6 in the Big East, and finished the season on a five-game losing streak that cost them a chance to play in a bowl for a second straight year. It also cost the Orange an opportunity to cash in all those extra practices that postseason teams are allowed.

In the offseason, Marrone knew a change was needed. He released linebackers coach Dan Conley, the lone holdover from the staff of former coach Greg Robinson, and defensive line coach Jimmy Bumbraugh. Steve Morrison, who starred in college at linebacker for Michigan, and Donnie Henderson have replaced them, respectively.

Marrone, who has assumed the duties of special-teams coordinator and tight ends coach, as well, worked exclusively with tight ends Beckett Wales, Ron Thompson, and Max Beaulieu for the first portion of Monday's practice, which was held outside on the fields adjacent to Manley Field House.

There are big holes to fill on both sides of the ball. Star defensive end Chandler Jones skipped his final year of college and was picked on the first round of the NFL draft by the New England Patriots. Phillip Thomas, the team's leading tackler, decided not to return to school because he was facing a one-year suspension. All-purpose tailback Antwon Bailey, who rushed for 1,051 yards and caught 29 passes for 200 yards last fall as a senior, is in training camp with the Washington Redskins. And guard Andrew Tiller and tackle Michael Hay also graduated, leaving gaps on the right side of the offensive line that protects quarterback Ryan Nassib.

Not helping matters is the injury factor that kept more than a dozen players from participating in spring ball, including leading receiver Alec Lemon and All-Big East offensive tackle Justin Pugh, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. That said, Marrone said strength and conditioning coaches Will Hicks and Hal Luther did excellent work in helping the players prepare for camp.

"I've never been concerned about the players' conditioning," Marrone said. "Now, it's our responsibility as coaches to make sure we're ready to play."

Marrone said none of the tailbacks in camp had separated himself from the group — "There'll be a lot of competition," he said — and reserved comment on wideout Marcus Sales.

Sales missed last season after a drug arrest. But all charges were dropped and he returned to the team this year. Sales had 26 receptions and 414 yards in 2010 en route to becoming the star of the Pinstripe Bowl victory. Against Kansas State at Yankee Stadium, he had three touchdown receptions.

"Marcus has the ability to do some good things for us," Marrone said. "It's all about consistency. I'm going to wait to see. If Marcus is consistent throughout, then he'll be a very good player for us."

They could use a few of those.