Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Paulus experiment working out for Orange

To say that people around Syracuse were skeptical when Greg Paulus was named the starting quarterback for the 2009 Orange football team is a huge understatement.

After four years as one of the most hated/loved (depending which side you're on) college basketball players in the country, the Syracuse native was coming home to play a sport that he once starred in...five years earlier in high school.

So far, the naysayers have been quieted.

Paulus has almost single-handedly made Syracuse football relevant again, leading the Orange to a 37-34 win over Northwestern last Saturday while playing Minnesota and Penn State tough in losing efforts the first two weeks. 

The stats are there to show Paulus' progress, but they tell only some of the story.  Paulus has completed 66% of his passes so far, throwing for four touchdowns and four interceptions.  He has also shown great mobility in and out of the pocket, rushing for a ten-yard touchdown last weekend.

Most of all, Paulus has brought leadership and hope to a place that so desperately needed both after a four-year run that saw Syracuse go 9-36 and win just three conference games. 

Paulus has been a model quarterback for the Orange, saying all the right things in the media, staying after practice to watch extra film and treating the loyal Syracuse fan base with great respect.  Paulus was the last one off the field after Saturday's win after running down the student-section sideline to give high-fives to everyone in the front row. 

The mistakes have been there, of course.  After not playing competitive football for five years, they were expected.  For example, an overtime interception in the opening-day loss to Minnesota cost the Orange a chance to start 1-0, and a late fumble in last weekend's game allowed the Northwestern offense to get great field position and score to take a 34-27 lead in the fourth quarter. 

Paulus has the odd situation of being both a senior and a freshman at once.  With only one year of eligibility, he was forced to learn a new offense on the fly, along with the rest of the Orange under new head coach Doug Marrone.  Marrone has praised Paulus' smarts and football intelligence, however, and has done a fantastic job of keeping the offense somewhat simple and sticking with Paulus' strengths. 

Marrone and offensive coordinator Rob Spence have kept Paulus in the spread system he ran in high school at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, where he won the Gatorade National Player of the Year award.  He is less of a traditional pocket quarterback because of his size (he was a point guard after all), but he makes up for it with elusiveness in the pocket and a knack for throwing well when rolling out to his right or left.

The real question is whether Paulus' body can handle a full football season, especially once Big East play begins and the weaknesses in Syracuse's offensive line are exploited by power teams like Connecticut and Cincinnati. 

If Paulus can lead the Orange to a 6-6 record and a bowl appearance, I wouldn't be surprised to see a statue in his honor go up in front of the Carrier Dome. But even without the postseason, Paulus has brought crowds back to the Dome and hope back to the program, and really, that's all anyone could have asked of him. 

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