The dream could have ended four years ago at Mississippi State after Mike Leach took over the football program in Starkville and asked Garrett Shrader to switch from quarterback to wide receiver and special teams. Though he had been a widely coveted, four-star recruit at Charlotte (N.C.) Christian High School and had shown some flashes while starting several games at quarterback as a college first-year student, Shrader really had no choice in the matter if he wanted to keep his scholarship. He accepted the move, but eventually realized he had made a huge mistake.
Shrader had been a quarterback since his first game of organized football as a seven-year-old. It was not only his natural position, but who he was. After a COVID-interrupted season in 2020, he decided to leave Starkville and enter the transfer portal in search of a program that would let him be a QB.
And that’s how he wound up at Syracuse University. There were no promises or guarantees at first. The Orange seemed set at the position with experienced veteran Tommy Devito as starter. Shrader accepted his No. 2 spot on the depth chart, but made sure he was ready, just in case opportunity arose. It did four games into the 2021 season when it became apparent a bruised and battered Devito no longer could operate behind SU’s porous offensive line. Orange coach Dino Babers switched to Shrader, who was bigger (6-foot-4, 240 pounds), faster, and more agile.
Devito wound up transferring to Illinois, where he enjoyed some success before signing as an undrafted free agent with the NFL’s New York Giants and delivering several solid preseason performances.
Shrader, meanwhile, bet on himself, and won. A true dual-threat quarterback, he will begin his final season with the Orange Saturday at 4 p.m. against Colgate in the JMA Wireless Dome.
Much is at stake for Shrader and the man who took a chance on him three seasons ago. One of just five active major-college quarterbacks with 5,000 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards, Shrader will have more than a football in his hands this fall. He’ll also be handling the fate of Babers’ coaching future.
With a 36-49 record and just two winning records in seven seasons, Babers is on the hot seat. Although the Orange went 7-6 last year, the season was disappointing because of the way SU swooned after a 6-0 start that saw it climb as high as 15th in the national polls. In retrospect, that fumble of a finish coincided with injuries to Shrader. Although he missed just one game, he clearly was hampered, and required off-season surgery on his right (throwing) elbow.
If — and it’s a big if — Shrader can stay healthy this season and continue his hookups with All-American receiving candidate Oronde Gadsden II, the Orange offense can be dynamic. SU’s offensive line has some questions, but the skill position players are top notch. And although offensive coordinator Robert Anae departed for North Carolina State, Shrader will again work with quarterbacks-coach-turned-coordinator Jason Beck. The two have a great relationship and understanding of the offense.
Before his injury derailment, Shrader had made dynamic improvement as a passer, ratcheting up his accuracy 12 percentage points to 64.7 percent. There’s no reason he can’t improve upon his touchdown-to-interception ratio (17-7) and still be a running threat (453 yards, nine touchdowns) – though, hopefully, with fewer carries to mitigate chance of injuries.
“This team will be bowl eligible,’’ Shrader predicted. And at the Atlantic Coast Conference media day two months ago, he said there’s no reason SU can’t knock off Clemson. Not a far-fetched, Joe Namath-level prognostication, considering the Orange host the Tigers in the Dome on September 30, just a week after Clemson has to play highly ranked Florida State. It should be noted that four of the last six meetings between the Orange and Tigers have been decided by one score, including last year’s game in Death Valley.
The Clemson game kicks off a Murderers’ Row of contests that include Orange visits to North Carolina and Florida State. With a few breaks, they could open 4-0, with home victories against underdogs Colgate, Western Michigan and Army, and a road upset of slightly favored Purdue. After Florida State, the Cuse has winnable games at Virginia Tech and at home against Boston College and Wake Forest, sandwiched around a neutral site game at Yankee Stadium against Pitt.
Again, health will be key. SU needs to keep Shrader, Gadsden and a handful of other blue-chippers upright because quality depth has been an issue. (That said, this is the deepest QB bench Babers has had, with Southeastern Conference transfers Carlos Del Rio-Wilson and Braden Davis at the backup spots.) The Orange needs to stack as many wins early because, under Babers, Novembers have been brutal. His teams are 6-20 during that month, including 1-9 the past three Novembers.
Syracuse has won 16 consecutive games against Colgate, a geographical rival just 38 miles southeast from the Dome and should have few problems extending the streak to 17 while taking a 34-33-5 lead in a series dating back to 1891. The Purdue game in Week 3 will be pivotal for the Cuse to go bowling a second straight year.
They will be counting heavily on a young quarterback with a beard and a real-life pilot’s license to guide them through the turbulence they are sure to encounter this year. The fate of the coach who believed in Shrader is at stake for a program trying to compile back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 22 years.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. He is in his 51st year of newspapering.s