The most effective way to become an all-conference linebacker at Syracuse these days is to start your career as a running back.
Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue may finish the season as All-Big East linebackers. They're seniors. They're roommates. And they both started their college career in the same place: buried on the depth chart at running back.
Syracuse's defense has been the biggest turnaround story for the biggest turnaround team in the conference, in part because of the play of Smith and Hogue.
The Orange led the conference in rush defense last season, but struggled against the pass and was seventh in the league in scoring defense. As Smith and Hogue have grown into their positions, the defense has become more well-rounded, too. This season, the Orange is second in the Big East in total defense, second in pass efficiency defense and fourth against the run.
The transition hasn't always been easy for either, but it has paid off.
Before Doug Marrone was hired as coach after the 2008 season, the previous staff had moved Smith to strongside linebacker. When Marrone and defensive coordinator Scott Shafer arrived, they moved Smith to the middle and moved Hogue from reserve running back to the weakside.
The stretch run
Key game the rest of the way
West Virginia at Pittsburgh, Nov. 26. Of Pitt's final four opponents, the Mountaineers are the only one the Panthers will face at home. This is the biggest rivalry in the conference and a game that has had surprise winners in the past. When West Virginia started 5-1, it looked as if it would dominate the Big East. Pittsburgh looks like that team now.
Offensive player of the year watch
The award will probably go to a running back, with Louisville's Bilal Powell and Connecticut's Jordan Todman ranking in the top five nationally in rushing. If Powell is out for a game or two, Todman could run away with the honor. Otherwise, the award presumably would go to the running back from the better team. It's worth noting Powell rushed for 105 yards and Todman rushed for 80 when Louisville beat Connecticut 26-0 on Oct. 23.
Defensive player of the year watch
Pitt DE Greg Romeus was co-defensive player of the year last season. With Romeus out, fellow DE Jabaal Sheard could claim the honor. Sheard has 12.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks and four forced fumbles. If Sheard isn't Big East defensive player of the year, it could be Syracuse LB Derrell Smith.
Newcomer of the year watch
West Virginia DE Bruce Irvin, a junior college transfer, is a pass-rush specialist, and he's been indispensable in part-time duty. He leads the Mountaineers with seven sacks. If Rutgers or USF close on a hot streak, though, Scarlet Knights QB Chas Dodd or Bulls LB DeDe Lattimore could win the honor.
"When we first got here, we didn't have a lot of speed on defense. That was our main goal, to become faster," Marrone said. "We looked at them physically first, and realized they can run and they can both hit and make plays."
Shafer had has success with turning running backs into pass rushers before. At Western Michigan, Ameer Ismail began his college career at running back, then led the nation in sacks two seasons later. At Stanford, Chike Amajoyi moved from running back to linebacker in 2007.
Smith and Hogue took to their new position just as fast. Smith said he was hooked after his first big hit of the season. When Hogue joined the lineup early last season, Smith watched him jump over a Penn State player in pursuit of the quarterback. Although both were raw at times, Smith recognized the potential.
"It thought this guy was going to be pretty good at this position," Smith said. "From that point on, we both excelled. That play right there was the defining moment that he would be a good linebacker."
There have been growing pains. When he first moved to the middle, Smith struggled when he had to read the offensive line and running backs. Both have had to learn how to use their hands, Shafer said, since most top high school running backs are not asked to pass protect. Hogue, though, was recruited by some as a linebacker. In 2009, he played every snap in every formation, Shafer said.
"He jumped in head-first and made a lot of mistakes early," Shafer said. "Then all of the sudden, he found his way."
Now, the tandem is anchoring the defense of what could be Syracuse's first bowl team since 2004. They've made perhaps their biggest impact of the season in the past two weeks.
In a 19-14 upset of West Virginia, Hogue had 10 tackles and two interceptions. He added 2.5 tackles for loss against Cincinnati last week. Smith, who is fifth in the Big East in tackles, returned an interception 60 yards to set up a third-quarter touchdown in the 31-7 rout of the Bearcats.
"We don't read, we just react," Smith said. "If we see something we like, just take it because there are people behind you who will make up for your mistakes and back you up."
Key matchup: Rutgers offensive line vs. USF's pass rush. USF leads the Big East in sacks and Rutgers is allowing the most sacks in the country. If there are a few things working in Rutgers' favor, freshman QB Chas Dodd is able to move around a little more than Tom Savage and, second, USF's leader in sacks, DE Craig Marshall, is out. Defensive end, though, is the deepest position on a formidable USF defense.
Player on the spot: Louisville QB Adam Froman (or Justin Burke). Louisville offensive coordinator Mike Sanford could be more on the spot than anyone else. His backfield is riddled with injuries going into the game with Syracuse. RB Bilal Powell is "day to day, week to week," coach Charlie Strong said. Powell left last week's loss to Pittsburgh with a knee injury. Backup Victor Anderson has not played since Oct. 9, but he was cleared to play this week. After Anderson, the top running backs are Jeremy Wright and Blayne Donnell, who have 31 carries between them. Quarterback also is a concern. Froman (leg) did not play the final series against Pittsburgh and will be evaluated this week.
Numbers game: USF QB B.J. Daniels accounted for 321 yards of total offense in the win over Cincinnati on Oct. 22. He accounted for only 246 in his first two Big East games combined. He has a pass efficiency rating of 272.7 against the Bearcats, compared to 91.7 in his first two Big East games.
What they're saying
"Nobody's used to losing on our team. ... Last year, we won games that if there would have been four or five plays [go the other way], we would have the same record that we have right now. We've just got to keep our head on straight and continue to work with a winning attitude." - Cincinnati RB John Goebel, to the Cincinnati Enquirer
"I'm excited for Greg [Romeus] to come back against UConn. I was talking to him and he said he feels pretty good. He's just got to take it day by day, with an injury and just coming back from surgery. You don't want to rush him back, especially with the future he has ahead of him." - Pittsburgh DE Jabaal Sheard, to PantherLair.com
"My first year, they lost two in a row and everybody thought the world was ending and we rallied them back pretty well. So, no, I'm not worried about losing the football team." - West Virginia coach Bill Stewart, to the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette
"Syracuse gets pretty cold around this time. Sometimes people don't feel like practicing or want to stay in the house. Right now, the whole team can't wait to practice." - Syracuse LB Derrell Smith
Etc.: The 16 presidents of the Big East approved an expansion to 10 football members from eight. Current basketball-only member Villanova, who won the FCS national championship last season, is examining the possibility of moving to the FBS. ... Rutgers named Dodd, a true freshman, the starting quarterback ahead of Savage, who started 11 games last season as a true freshman. Dodd started the past three games while Savage recovered from injuries to his ribs and throwing hand. ... Pitt's Romeus, the league's preseason defensive player of the year, returned to practice this week for the first time since having back surgery. ... Cincinnati DT Derek Wolfe (neck) expects to be back at full strength for West Virginia on Nov. 13. QB Zach Collaros (knee) is a "work in progress," coach Butch Jones said. Collaros' status is unknown for West Virginia. ... Rutgers WR Mohamed Sanu, who often takes direct snaps, leads Rutgers in receiving yards (341) and rushing yards (286). ... Connecticut is 4-0 at home and 0-4 on the road this season. ... Connecticut LB Sio Moore has eight tackles for a loss in three Big East games.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.