Preparing for his senior season, Scott Firman knew a potential position change could happen. The lone returning starter from the defense, Nick Mellen, had just undergone surgery and his status for fall ball remained unclear.Firman, who’s been a long stick midfielder for the past three years, started dabbling with a possible switch to close defense during the summer.When fall came around, Mellen was not ready. Given the inexperience on the backline, Syracuse assistant coach Lelan Rogers wanted to move a veteran player to play defense to patch up the hole. Firman’s skills as a long stick midfielder and previous experience playing close defense in high school made him the best candidate for the job.“If you can play both, it’s really going to get you on the field a lot quicker,” Rogers said. “Scott’s a kid who can play both up top and down low.”Firman has been an anchor for No. 6 Syracuse (1-0) on the defensive side of the field since his freshman year in 2014. The senior had spent three years as the long stick midfielder, a position he has been most comfortable playing. But with two close defensemen now graduated and Mellen out with injury, Firman will play close defense for SU this season.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textIt started with 1-on-1 and 6-on-6 drills in practice. In the former, Firman would work on technique. Each day, Rogers had a new tip or a note for Firman to improve on — whether it be spacing or proper footwork. During the latter, he would be able to see the full field and improve communication down low.The transition came with a degree of difficulty. The main difference was learning to deal with attackmen who’d run behind the net, something Firman wasn’t used to when guarding midfielders.When Firman played close defense in high school, it was because he was one of the best athletes on the team. Now, he needed to learn the fundamentals.“(At Syracuse) it’s more of a ‘We’re going to put you down here,’” Firman said, “’but you’ve got to learn everything in terms of technique and team defense.’”Jamie Archer, Firman’s high school coach, says speed and pushing transition are intangibles crucial to being a long stick midfielder. And to Archer, Firman had that.But at close defense, Firman has to get to the goal line and turn his hips to keep the opposition behind. The angle is completely different and there is more lateral movement. Up top as a long stick midfielder, it’s more turning his hips and sprinting, staying with the midfielder. Close defense also leaves room to recover from a quick slip up.“Behind goal if they beat you initially,” Archer said, “you can recover a little more because they’re behind the goal most of the time.”In Syracuse’s season opener against Siena on Saturday, Firman made his first career start. He had played regularly for three years prior, appearing in 46 games. He picked up four ground balls in SU’s 19-6 win. In only one game, he already has 12 percent of his total ground ball total in 17 games last year.There was some miscommunication in the first game, including a three-goal first quarter. The defense then buckled down, allowing only three goals in as many quarters the rest of the way.“The great ones, of which Scotty is, can adjust quickly,” Rogers said.When Mellen returns to action, Firman may play both long stick and pole, depending on the opposition. With quicker and faster attackmen, Firman will likely stay down low. But with quick midfielders, Firman will move back up to his natural position.Despite the position change, Firman has been a steady constant from preseason to now. He will likely match up on the team’s No. 1 attacker since the other two starters, Tyson Bomberry and Marcus Cunningham, have made a combined 16 appearances in college.“Switching positions from long stick middie done to close and back and forth like that,” senior attack and high school teammate Jordan Evans said, “that’s one of the hardest things you can do.” Comments Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on February 13, 2017 at 10:01 pm Contact Charlie: email@example.com | @charliedisturco
Junior wide receiver Michael Pittman runs down the field during spring practice. (Josh Dunst/Daily Trojan) There are a handful of players who seem to have made strides from where they were last year and look poised to step up for the Trojans. Freshman defensive back Britton Allen has shown promise, offering impressive tenacity in the secondary with a penchant for stripping out the ball. Sophomore Devon Williams has been putting together his unique combination of top-end speed and incredible length at 6-foot-4 to become a dangerous receiving weapon. Besides tangible changes to the team’s offensive strategy, there’s been a concerted effort to change elements of the team philosophy as a whole with toughness and discipline at its core. The team as realized it needs to work on accountability after a 2018 season that saw them average almost 14 penalties per game, and the coaching staff is determined not to let that happen again. Former offensive coordinator Tee Martin has been replaced by former University of North Texas head coach Graham Harrell. Harrell brings with him the dynamic air-raid offense; a system that’s spread quickly across the college football landscape in recent years, yet has never appearing at USC until now. The Trojans have long maintained a traditional pro-style offense, built on deep drops from under center, long developing routes and multi-level reads. The air-raid, on the other hand, emphasizes stretching the field both horizontally and vertically, generally putting the quarterback in a shotgun alignment and allowing him to make quick and often simple reads. There are now live referees throwing flags on any penalties at every practice. It’s already seemed to have paid rapid dividends, as there’s been a noticeable drop in violations since the first day of practice. Whether or not it carries over to real games will remain to be seen, but it’s a promising start. Two weeks into Spring Football, it’s already clear that the Trojans will be doing things very differently this year. Looking to bounce back from their worst season in 19 years, head coach Clay Helton and his staff have are shaking things up across the board. The system encourages simplicity from players across the formation, allowing them to focus more directly on executing individual tasks without needing to process the entirety of the play. Multiple players have mentioned that the simplicity of the air raid allows them to “play fast,” relieving them of the weight of processing too many moving parts during each play. That difference has shown on the field, with the offense running a surprisingly high number of offensive plays in practice for this early in the offseason. Although a two-week sample size isn’t much to work with, a number of players already seem to be ready to serve as key contributors for the upcoming season. Some are unsurprising — veteran receivers Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman, linebacker John Houston and defensive tackle Jay Tufele have all shown up to work, picking up from where they left off. The shift to the air raid has been evident in almost every aspect of practice so far. There’s been an emphasis on letting the offense just run, even this early into training without the absorption of an entire pro-style playbook. Redshirt junior receiver Tyler Vaughns, now one of the team’s upperclassmen, commented on the benefits of that fact. Some of last year’s impact freshman also seem to be in their stride — linebacker Palaie Gaoteote has remained a standout and receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown has been as consistent as ever. Talanoa Hufanga had been looking even better at safety than he did last year, though an injury in Saturday’s practice makes his future status unclear. Hufanga had a fantastic freshman season until a collarbone injury took him out for the year. The same injury that seems to have been re-aggravated despite his non-contact designation in practice. “We’re getting more live reps which I like,” Vaughns said. “We’re getting more team reps and everything like that, so it’s really helping us as an offense.” Two sophomores who played a very limited role last year have stepped up in these two weeks. Running back Markese Stepp, buried on the depth chart for most of last year, has been a force on the practice field. Stepp is a runaway freight train at 235 pounds, bulldozing defenders with regularity. With the sidelining of Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai to the flu, Stepp has received many first team reps and shown showing ability to catch the ball out of the backfield along with being a punishing runner. On the other side of the ball, sophomore cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart missed most of last season due to injury after playing mostly special teams early in the year, never receiving an opportunity to play real game snaps on defense. Taylor-Stuart is tremendously gifted as an athlete, with blazing speed to go with his impressive frame of 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, but his lack of refined technique held him back in the early stages of his freshman year. However, he’s become one of the first-string corners and his continued improvement could be one of the most important factors in the success of the Trojan defense come fall.