September 1, 2009

Pressure not a concern for Syracuse's Paulus

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - He still hasn't taken a snap in a college football game, but the central figure in this season's greatest experiment already has pulled off at least one improbable feat.

Former Duke basketball player Greg Paulus has made Syracuse football relevant again.

This once-proud program is 10-37 tied for the fifth-worst mark of any Football Bowl Subdivision school since winning a share of the Big East title in 2004. But that won't stop curious fans from watching the Orange's season opener Saturday against Minnesota to see whether Paulus makes a successful transition from point guard to quarterback.

Paulus, the 2004 Gatorade national high school football player of the year, is back on the gridiron after a four-year layoff. If he shakes off the rust in time to lead Syracuse back to respectability, the hometown kid would deliver one of the most stunning personal comebacks in recent college sports history.

"The people here have been welcoming," says Paulus, who starred in football and basketball at Christian Brothers Academy, a private school less than 10 miles from Syracuse's campus. "It's been a lot of fun to see people who I haven't had the opportunity to see the past few years being down south at Duke to see their excitement and to feel that people are anxious for this football season. It's something that gets me even more excited."

This move has rekindled interest in a dormant program, but it also represents a major gamble for both parties. Syracuse already has received criticism for handing the offense to a guy who hasn't played a meaningful football game since 2004. And an unsuccessful homecoming for Paulus would represent a bittersweet conclusion to the athletic career of one of this city's most storied prep performers.

Paulus threw for a New York state-record 11,763 career passing yards at Christian Brothers. He capped his high school football career by helping Christian Brothers rally from a two-touchdown, second-half deficit to win the state title against a New Rochelle team that featured Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.

Yet there never was much doubt about which sport he'd play in college. As good as Paulus was at football, basketball was his lifelong passion.

"He was always focused on basketball," says Paulus' younger brother, North Carolina reserve quarterback Mike Paulus. "He wants to be a college basketball coach, and he picked the school to [prepare for] it. It's like going to the best medical school if you want to be a doctor. He did it and doesn't regret it for a second."


From football to basketball

Paulus had an up-and-down career at Duke. He was a two-time captain and became the fourth freshman in Atlantic Coast Conference history to lead the league in assists, but Duke never advanced beyond the Sweet 16 during his career and he lost his starting job last season as a senior.

Even so, Paulus never second-guessed his decision.

"During my four years [at Duke], it was only basketball I thought about," Paulus says. "I have no regrets about it. It was my first love. Growing up, it was a dream of mine to have the opportunity to play big-time basketball."

Orange crushed
Syracuse quarterback Greg Paulus will try to change the fortunes of a program that has produced one of the worst records of any FBS school since winning a share of the Big East title in 2004. Here's a look at the 10 FBS programs with the worst combined records since '04.
SchoolRecordWinning Pct.
Duke6-41.128
North Texas8-39.170
Utah State9-38.191
Idaho9-38.191
Syracuse 10-37.213
Temple10-37.213
New Mexico State11-38.224
Washington11-37.229
Florida International11-36.234
UNLV11-36.234
Paulus didn't reconsider football until he was invited to work out with the Green Bay Packers after Duke's elimination from the 2009 NCAA basketball tournament. A Packers official went to North Carolina to watch Paulus throw to former Duke wide receiver Eron Riley.

Paulus performed well enough to wonder if he still might have something left, but Duke already was set at quarterback with the return of four-year starter Thaddeus Lewis. Paulus visited Michigan and Nebraska before deciding to return to the city where he enjoyed his greatest success.

"The people here are unbelievable," Paulus says. "This city and the people here at Syracuse have helped make me who I am today."

Paulus, who graduated from Duke in four years without redshirting, received a waiver from the NCAA that allowed him to play football for Syracuse. Before he could commit to Syracuse, the Orange needed to find out he was serious about football and Paulus needed to know the Orange were serious about him.

During his official visit, Paulus and the Syracuse coaching staff watched film of his Christian Brothers games, with Paulus explaining all the reads he made on each play. Finally, he asked Syracuse coach Doug Marrone about the opportunity for playing time.

"At the end of the day, when Greg said, 'Do I have a chance to play?', I had to give him an answer from my heart," Marrone says. "I was going to have to look him in the eye and tell him the truth."

Marrone's answer was obvious in that he wasted little time declaring Paulus the starter for Syracuse's season opener.

Skeptics note that Marrone's decision could say more about the state of Syracuse's program than Paulus himself. Syracuse quarterbacks Cam Dantley and Andrew Robinson combined to complete just 47 percent of their passes last season. The Orange ranked 114th out of 120 FBS teams in passing efficiency and finished 3-9.

Paulus beat out sophomore Ryan Nassib and Dantley for the starting job, while Robinson moved to tight end.

"Greg Paulus must be an upgrade for him to go in and earn the starting spot as quickly as he did, especially when you consider he hasn't played football for four years," says Mitch Browning, a Tennessee graduate assistant who was Syracuse's offensive coordinator last season. "He obviously is a mature, intelligent and talented athlete. We thought Cam Dantley played well at times and did a nice job of managing the game. And based on what we saw during Ryan Nassib's redshirt freshman season, we thought he had a great future ahead of him."

No wonder the Orange were seeking a fresh start, and Paulus quickly won over his teammates by reaching out to them instead of displaying any kind of prima donna attitude.

"Greg came in, introduced himself and chatted with everyone who happened to be around," fifth-year senior tight end Mike Owen says. "Whether he was lifting, sitting in the locker room or outside, everywhere we were, he just wanted to have small talk with people and build relationships with teammates.

"From day one, me and Greg clicked. And it's been like that with the whole offense."


A basketball player at quarterback?

Winning over the rest of the country could prove tougher. Paulus' emergence as Syracuse's starting quarterback has generated one of the biggest debates of the preseason: Can a quarterback succeed after spending four years away from the game?

Welcome back
Greg Paulus is the most high-profile quarterback returning to action after a long football sabbatical, but he isn't the only one.

Dave Shinskie is competing for the starting job at Boston College at the age of 25, though the former minor league baseball pitcher hasn't played football since ending his high school career in 2002.

Shinskie threw for 6,334 yards and led his team to a 41-6 record in four years as a starter at Mount Carmel (Pa.) Area High. He gave up football after the Minnesota Twins selected him in the fourth round of Major League Baseball's 2003 first-year player draft.

Shinskie, a right-hander, was 24-30 with a 4.61 ERA while playing seven seasons in the Twins' and Toronto Blue Jays' organizations. After the Blue Jays released him in May, Shinskie decided to give football another shot.

Shinskie broke a rib at an Aug. 23 scrimmage, which and hindered his chances of winning the job, though Boston College coach Frank Spaziani hasn't named a starter for the Eagles' season opener. Shinskie is competing with redshirt freshman Justin Tuggle, true freshman Mike Marscovetra and junior Codi Boek.
Former Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke played six years of minor league baseball in the 1990s before winning a national title and a Heisman with the Seminoles, but this represents a tougher challenge. Weinke spent a year as a reserve before taking over as Florida State's starter, while Paulus will make his Syracuse debut as the Orange's first-team quarterback.

"You shouldn't be making this a controversial thing: 'Can this be done or not?' '' says Christian Brothers coach Joe Casamento, who graduated from Syracuse in 1969. "Everybody in America should be cheering for this kid because he's trying to do what we tell our kids to do: 'You have a dream? You want to try that? Go do it. Don't worry about what anybody else says. Put your head down and go to work.'

"That's what he's doing."

Instead of easing into his new role, Paulus' first three games will come against Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern. All three played in bowls last season, and a 0-3 start isn't out of the question. Paulus does have the benefit of playing seven of his first eight games at home, but that might not be such a good thing if Syracuse starts slowly.

The good news for Paulus is that playing point guard at Duke probably made him immune to booing by now.

"Whether you're the best shooter in the country, like J.J. Redick, or the worst point guard ever, if you're at Duke, you're going to get an earful no matter what," Mike Paulus says. "I think he's learned a lot from it. It's made him a tougher person with a tougher skin. He's able to block it out and let it in one ear and out the other. It's made him tougher.

"Syracuse is a really critical town, especially with the football team because they've been down so many years. If they lose one game, they might call for his head instead of rallying around him."

Paulus' background should help him deal with that kind of reception. Playing four years at Duke made him more media-savvy than the typical first-year starting quarterback. Paulus majored in political science at Duke and is a graduate student at Syracuse's prestigious Newhouse School of Public Communications.

He consequently already has matched former Boston College standout and current Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in at least one respect. Paulus, like Ryan, has mastered the art of politely answering every question without really saying anything.

If Paulus wanted to pop off at the media, he could have spent the past couple of weeks disputing the notion that his time away from football will prevent him from making the split-second mental adjustments that come along with playing quarterback.

The people who watched Paulus perform at Christian Brothers scoff at that criticism. They insist Paulus' ability to pick up blitzes and read defenses will be a weapon rather than a weakness.

"That's what he does best," says fifth-year senior wide receiver Lavar Lobdell, one of Paulus' former high school teammates. "I'm hoping defensive coordinators think he'll be rusty. That's what we're looking forward to. Come at him and assume he's rusty, and he'll pick you apart. That's his strength. That's what I believe separates him from other guys."

In fact, Lobdell believes Paulus is even better at football than basketball. Lobdell can't forget how Paulus willed Christian Brothers to a state championship in the final game of his high school career.

"He was a good basketball player," Lobdell says, "but I think his competitiveness on the football field is unmatched."


Readying to go

Of course, competitiveness alone can only get a player so far. After spending so much time away from football, Paulus needed a guide of sorts. He didn't have to look too long to find that mentor.

No sibling rivalry here
As a Division I quarterback in his own right, North Carolina backup Mike Paulus has a unique perspective on his brother's chances for success and notes that his brother could benefit from going to the Big East during a season of transition.

Paulus is one of five first-year starting quarterbacks in the eight-team conference; the league also has five new defensive coordinators. West Virginia is the only Big East school to return its coach and both coordinators.

"I don't doubt anything Greg can do," Mike Paulus says. "I just hope his surrounding cast will help him. If he loses a game or two off the bat, he's Greg Paulus and will get most of the criticism, but I think he can play anywhere."
Mike Paulus plays quarterback a short drive from Duke's campus. After Greg told Mike he was thinking about playing football again, the brothers worked out together throughout the spring.

When Mike Paulus traveled Syracuse this summer before North Carolina started training camp, he gave his older brother a crash course on everything he might have forgotten about football. Mike continues to be the first person Greg calls after Syracuse finishes practice each day.

"When he was home, he'd come here and we'd watch film," Greg Paulus says. "He'd say, 'What are you looking at here?' or 'These are the kinds of defenses I saw against so-and-so. These are the adjustments we made. What are you putting in today?'

"We're talking Xs and Os. We're talking football. We're talking training. We're talking about different footwork. He's been unbelievable to me. I'm lucky to have him."

All those sessions helped Paulus gain confidence he could indeed make a successful transition. Playing point guard at Duke didn't diminish the skills that helped make Paulus an outstanding high school quarterback; his basketball experience actually might help him in some respects.

Long before Paulus' arrival, Syracuse offensive coordinator Rob Spence believed experience as a point guard could benefit a quarterback. Spence noted that successful quarterbacks and top point guards possess many of the same traits.

"They have to make snap decisions," Spence says. "They have to process information very quickly. They have to have a high athletic IQ and have to have a feel and sense for where people are. They'll see things maybe another person wouldn't see.

"I really enjoy trying to find quarterbacks who've had a background in basketball, especially if they happen to be a point-guard type."

Spence is speaking from experience. His prize pupil during his tenure as Hofstra's offensive coordinator in the late 1990s was Giovanni Carmazzi, who threw for more than 9,000 yards in his college career after playing football and basketball at Jesuit High School in Carmichael, Calif. The San Francisco 49ers drafted Carmazzi in the third round of the 2000 NFL draft.

Spence later worked as the offensive coordinator at Toledo, where he mentored Bruce Gradkowski, a former star point guard at Pittsburgh's Seton-La Salle High School. Gradkowski, now a member of the Oakland Raiders, set an NCAA record (since broken by Hawaii's Colt Brennan) with his career completion percentage of .682.

Basketball to football
Greg Paulus is one of several active Division I football players with college basketball backgrounds. Here's a look at some other football players who played basketball at some point in their college careers.
The buzz: Brown was a two-sport athlete during the 2007-08 school year before choosing to concentrate on football. This will mark his first season as the Mountaineers' starting quarterback.
The buzz: Cameron went to BYU as a forward on the basketball team, but after redshirting in 2006-07, he transferred to Ventura (Calif.) Junior College as a football player. He now is a two-sport athlete at USC who played briefly in three games for the Trojans' basketball team last season.
The buzz: Chichester enrolled at Louisville as a football player, but he also spent the 2007-08 season as a reserve on the Cardinals' basketball team after being redshirted that fall. He now is a full-time football player who caught 30 passes for 341 yards last season.
The buzz: Graham spent four seasons on Miami's basketball team and ranks eighth on the school's career list with 104 blocks. After completing his basketball eligibility and earning a degree with a double-major in marketing and management, Graham decided to join the Hurricanes' football team. Graham, who is 6 feet 8, is working out as a reserve tight end.
The buzz: LaGrone played basketball at Nevada for two seasons before transferring to Oregon State to play football with his brother. LaGrone has been working with the second-team defense this summer and should get plenty of playing time as a reserve.
The buzz: Onobun played four seasons as a reserve forward on Arizona's basketball team before heading to Houston to play football. Onobun, who is 6-6, hasn't played football since junior high school, but he should earn some playing time as a reserve this fall despite missing about two weeks of training camp with a twisted ankle.
The buzz: After leading Baylor in receiving as a freshman last season, Wright played 13 games for the Bears' basketball team as a reserve guard. Wright caught 50 passes for 649 yards and five touchdowns last season.
"Prior to Greg Paulus, [Spence] had said we want someone at quarterback who's like a point guard," Marrone says. "He gave the reasons that [he could] see the field and be able to do this and that. When we signed Greg Paulus, we said, 'Well, we've got a pretty good point guard playing quarterback, so we'll see if your theory's correct.' It has been.

"It's interesting. It really is. It's made me more aware of how when you play other sports, you're in a position to feel and see a lot of different things happening around you. It answers the question. The guy hasn't played [football], but he's been in situations where it's going to convert over, from basketball to football. That's why you're going to see Greg have success, in my opinion."

Still, Paulus faces a much different set of circumstances. Think of what might have happened if Gradkowski and Carmazzi had abandoned their NFL pursuits to try playing Division I basketball after finishing their college football careers. That's the type of challenge Paulus is undertaking.

Then again, he never has run from a challenge before. Concentrating on basketball the past four years may have temporarily hampered his passing mechanics, but it sure didn't hinder his competitive streak.

"I really can't think of too many positions athletically that are under more pressure than the point guard at Duke," Casamento says. "If there's pressure, he's equipped to handle it a lot better than some 19-year-old or 20-year-old kid, where it's his first time crossing the field and trying to play."

After spending four years as the guy fans of rival ACC schools loved to hate, Paulus should be ready for whatever reception he encounters when the Orange head to Penn State, Pittsburgh or any other road venue.

"There's no better feeling than keeping 20,000 people quiet with a big shot or a big play," Paulus says.

How about silencing 80,000 hostile fans with a touchdown pass?

"That would be even sweeter," he says. "That would be four times sweeter."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

Rivals.com senior writer Tom Dienhart contributed to this report.




 

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