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Liberty pivoted in practice this week to prepare for Syracuse QB Rex Culpepper

Liberty pivoted in practice this week to prepare for Syracuse QB Rex Culpepper

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When the Syracuse football team released its depth chart for Saturday’s game against Liberty, there wasn’t much surprise to find longtime backup Rex Culpepper as the projected starting quarterback against the Flames. It was all but a formality Culpepper was going to get the nod following Tommy DeVito’s potentially season-ending injury suffered last weekend versus Duke.

The Liberty coaching staff, though, was already preparing a gameplan to defend against the 6-foot-3, 221-pound redshirt senior who has attempted 19 passes in four appearances this season for the Orange (1-3).

“I don’t think the offensive system will probably change that much with him,” Liberty defensive coordinator Scott Symons said Monday, “and I think he’s a guy that can run the offense at a high-tempo pace like they like to do.”

The Orange have averaged more than 75 offensive plays per game since coach Dino Babers’ arrival prior to the start of the 2016 season. Syracuse has routinely been among the fastest offenses in the nation during that time span.

However, this season has seen a drop in offensive plays with the Orange’s slow start. Syracuse is averaging 72 plays per game, a number well below its averages of 81 (2016), 86 (2017), 82 (2018) and 76 (2019) plays per contest in Baber’s first four seasons.

Culpepper is being thrust into a starting role for the first time since Nov. 25, 2017. His career path featured changing positions to tight end before moving back to quarterback, and he also missed the 2018 campaign while recovering from testicular cancer.

“I think he’s a guy that their team will be pulling for him, will be behind him,” Symons said. “I think he’s a good player. I think he knows how to run their system. He can run the ball as well as run their offense.”

Culpepper completed 1 of 3 passes for 3 yards against Duke, and he’ll be tasked with throwing it more frequently against a Liberty pass rush that has recorded seven sacks in the past two weeks.

“He’s not as different as the other guy they had,” Liberty nose tackle Ralfs Rusins said, comparing Culpepper to DeVito. “We’re basically preparing for him the same as we would the other guy. There’s not a lot of difference there.”

Culpepper has completed 8 of 19 passes for 113 yards, one touchdown and one interception this season. In 2017, he threw for 518 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions on 45-of-75 passing.

“Obviously he knows their offense, he has played in some games,” Flames safety JaVon Scruggs (Appomattox) said. “ … It might be a little slower, but he knows where he wants to go with the ball.”

DeVito was the starting quarterback when the Orange faced the Flames in the 2019 season opener. He threw for 176 yards and two interceptions on 17-of-35 passing in that game, and was off to a similarly slow start this season.

He completed 50% of his passes (48 of 96) for 593 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions before suffering a left-leg injury on a sack early in the fourth quarter against the Blue Devils.

Culpepper took over in the drive and completed a 3-yard pass to set up a field goal.

The only other drive in the fourth quarter featured two incomplete passes and a sack.

“I think he’s a decent quarterback from what we’ve seen,” Flames coach Hugh Freeze said. “Not a lot of tape on him, but he’s big, strong, can run, got great receivers, has thrown touchdowns to them. I think he’s a quality quarterback.”

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