This season, Eric Dungey vows to be smarter.
Syracuse head coach Dino Babers is not the first person to try curbing the approach responsible for Dungey’s successes and injuries. Scott Shafer, Dungey’s freshman-year coach, harped on Dungey about protecting his body by throwing the ball away instead of running. So did at least five Syracuse teammates. So did at least four coaches at Lakeridge High School in Oregon. So did at least two independent quarterback coaches. His dad talked to him about scrambling smart. When Dungey was a senior, Jennifer Schiele, Lakeridge’s concerned principal, tried enticing him into playing safer by offering a Three Musketeers candy bar, his favorite, for every time he opted not to run people over.
Now that concern rests on Babers ahead of a season that could define Dungey’s college career, as well as the perception of Babers’ fast-paced offense predicated on heady quarterback play.
Standing on the grass practice field in mid-August, Babers considered the conundrum. Dungey has asserted he’ll run less this year, as he did last year and the year before that. This time, does Babers believe him?
“I hope so,” Babers said. “I hope I believe him. … He needs to be a part of what we do.”
A few days earlier, Dungey stood on the same field answering questions about his head. Questions about his health have dogged him since freshman year, when in Week 3 Central Michigan defensive end Mitch Stanitzek helmet-to-helmet “pezzed” Dungey. That’s the term one Nation Football League coach uses to describe hits that snap player’s heads back like Pez dispensers.
Dungey missed the next game and six more in the time since, all due to “upper-body” injuries. Syracuse classifies injuries in two categories: “upper-body” or “lower-body.” When SU says “upper-body” in relation to Dungey, because of his history and the hits he’s taken, it is popularly interpreted as “concussion.” In August 2016, Syracuse.com reported Dungey has suffered two concussions in college, but Dungey’s father, Tim, maintained his son has only ever sustained one. At Lakeridge, one coach said, Dungey was removed from a game for fear of head injury at least twice.
Either way, after a full day of training camp, Dungey promised to limit any further injury.
“Coach always makes it clear that you got to protect yourself and have the family in mind,” he said. “If I’m not doing that, I’m not being smart and protecting myself. If I’m not on the field, it’s hurting the team.”
It is more important this season than any other in his life that Dungey remain on the field. Quarterbacking awards watchlisted him, and Babers publicly promised that the offense would take off in his second season. Dungey could be one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, said ESPN college football reporter David Hale, if he stays healthy.
“His ceiling is so high,” Hale said. “… He’s probably the best quarterback Babers has ever had as a head coach, including (current New England Patriot Jimmy) Garoppolo.”
In outlining the plan to stay healthy, Dungey said what he has always said, which was less running, more passing. His family and teammates are convinced that this year is the year he actualizes the long-promised adjustments in his game: to scramble selectively, to slide when he runs, to finally betray the player he’s been for his entire life.
Jessica Sheldon | Staff Photographer
Dungey said he wants to step into the pocket-passing role molded for him by coaches, yet the transformation robs him of the running talent that has always separated him from the rest. It was why then-SU offensive coordinator Tim Lester reviewed hundreds of quarterbacks’ tapes in the fall of 2014 and felt compelled to call a high school senior almost 2,800 miles away who held no Power 5 offers and had never received a substantial look from either of his two Division I state schools. It was why last season, after Syracuse’s upset of then-No. 17 Virginia Tech, Babers reversed his earlier assertions of wanting Dungey to run less to say the offense needed his legs to succeed.
Therein lies the duality of Eric Dungey: Running has always been crucial to his and the team’s current success, yet hazardous to his and the team’s future. He wants to change. He knows how. He says he will. And then he doesn’t.
In May 2013, before his junior season at Lakeridge, Rivals.com reporter Dirk Knudsen interviewed Dungey at a quarterback camp in Kennewick, Washington. Midway through the conversation, Knudsen said, almost as an aside, “You like to run the football, too, don’t you?”
Dungey squinted, hesitated and said, “Uh, yeah, but this year I’m going to become more of a passer.”
The next season, Dungey still averaged more than 12 rushes per game.
At Virginia’s 33-yard line, with time winding down to halftime, Dungey sensed three refridgerator-sized defensive linemen closing in on him and took off. He darted up the middle to open turf. Four yards from the endzone, 6-foot-2 UVA safety Quin Blanding squared up the then-freshman Syracuse quarterback, determined to dash Dungey’s dash. But his lowered shoulder whooshed through the air, never crunching against anyone. Dungey soared above him, hurdling into the endzone and that night’s Top 10 plays on “SportsCenter.” But on that play, Blanding wasn’t Dungey’s biggest threat. It was Micah Kiser, the inside linebacker now missiling his 240 pounds into the space Dungey’s head would occupy in less than a second when he landed.
Dungey first hurdled a defender in seventh or eighth grade, and it felt like an epiphany. Dungey, now 6-foot-4, has always been tall, and since he started playing as a kid, defenders threw themselves at his legs as the best way to wobble him. But the league Lakeridge played in, coaches and Dungey said, penalized players for hurdling.
“Sometimes you don’t think, you react,” Tim said. “That’s what he does.”
Lakeridge needed Dungey to move the ball with his legs because, opposing coaches said, the Pacers struggled to do it any other way.
“He was running for his life,” said Steve Coury, head coach at cross-town rival Lake Oswego High School. “The (offensive line) was not very good, and he played on a less-than-mediocre team. But he could kill you that way.”
Many teams schemed strictly to stop Dungey and worried about when the structure of their plays broke down, because that’s when Dungey thrived. As he leapt over and steamrolled through their players, coaches sensed Dungey’s belief in himself to do what his team needed. Former NFL quarterback Chris Miller, who trained Dungey at camps and coached against him for West Linn High School, compared Dungey’s confidence to John Elway and Aaron Rodgers.
“He got his butt knocked off,” Miller said. “He’s laying on the sideline sometimes, always coming back the play after. He got his bell rung, and there were more moments than one. Throughout (the league), he was well-respected.”
And now here he was nearly five months after high school graduation, having just cleared Virginia’s Blanding and on a collision course with the linebacker. He landed as Kiser’s helmet and right shoulderpad simultaneously connected, briefly though solidly, with his upper-body. Dungey’s head whipped left as he tumbled to the foot of the “R” in VIRGINIA.
On the Scott Stadium sideline, Terrel Hunt winced. The year before, Hunt and Dungey bonded during Dungey’s official visit. They sat in a back corner of Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar as Hunt explained “the perks of being a quarterback on a Division I campus.” Dungey, then 202 pounds, marveled at Hunt’s muscled 234. Dungey called Hunt “Pops” and texted him updates on his weight gain. More than anything, though, Hunt appreciated the way Dungey made him feel a part of the team after Hunt went down with an Achilles injury in the 2015 season-opener against Rhode Island. The injury ended Hunt’s career and jumpstarted Dungey’s, just four days after his first college class.
The true freshman threw a 32-yard touchdown on his first career pass attempt. He sometimes called plays that weren’t in the playbook but somehow became first downs. He won an overtime game. With him under center, Syracuse started 3-0 for the first time in 24 years. Throughout, Dungey frequented Hunt’s University Village apartment and stood next to him on the sidelines at games, asking, “T, what did you see?”
Dungey’s score put Syracuse up on UVA by a touchdown, but Hunt worried about Dungey because he seemed “woozy.” In the Virginia visitor’s locker room at halftime, Hunt remembered Dungey approaching him and their following exchange like this.
“Hey T,” Dungey said, “what’s the score?”
“We’re up 21 to 14,” Hunt said.
“Really? Who scored?” Dungey asked.
“What do you mean,” Hunt said, taken aback. “You scored. You jumped over a guy!”
“Really?” Dungey replied. “I did that?”
Hunt nervously looked around to see if anyone else had heard. He thought Dungey was concussed. Dungey had missed the Louisiana State game three weeks prior because of the Central Michigan hit and, the week before in his return, South Florida had sacked him three times. Then, Hunt’s eyes swung back to Dungey, who was grinning.
“Nah, T,” Dungey said, “I’m just playing!”
Hunt interpreted the interaction as a joke. Classic Dungey, “breaking balls.” There were occasional reminders that Dungey was a rookie. One offensive lineman remembered Dungey almost missing an offensive series in overtime against Virginia because he ran back to the locker room to urinate instead of relieving himself on the sideline vents, like most players. But Hunt saw Dungey’s humor as indicative of a veteran leader’s awareness and self-assurance.
Jessica Sheldon | Staff Photographer
In overtime against UVA, Dungey was the subject of a second targeting penalty in five weeks. In a game that symbolized so much about the promise and pitfalls of Dungey’s style, Syracuse.com reported he absorbed 20 hits in total, including nine “he could have avoided” by sliding or throwing the ball away.
“(Coaches) want me sliding and not taking any shots,” Dungey said after the game. “It’s not really in my nature.”
In SU’s next game, a helmet-to-helmet hit forced Dungey to undergo concussion testing. On that particular play, Tim Lester said, the quarterback scrambled when he should’ve passed. Two weeks later, trailing Louisville by 31 points with four minutes to go, another hit to the head forced Dungey to exit with what Scott Shafer called a “head” injury. Dungey did not play the last three games of the season because of an “upper-body injury.”
In February 2016, the first time Dungey spoke publicly since the prior season, he downplayed concussion discussion as “talk and rumors.” Syracuse had fired Shafer and hired Babers, whose offense, Dungey said, asked him to run less.
“I’m not going to be running nearly as much,” he said.
The next season, Dungey averaged more rushes per game than he did the year before.
When Dungey was a junior at Lakeridge, a season-long power struggle between two coaches caused the players to close ranks and support one another. Dungey and his teammates somehow remained in the hurricane’s eye and won nine games, the school’s best finish in at least a decade. Even when the conflict mushroomed and one coach quit during the playoffs, Lakeridge won its next game.
“It was one heck of an educational process,” Tim said. “… I think, looking back, you hate to say it was a positive thing, but it ended up to be a real positive thing, because I think (Eric and his teammates) learned that there are people who will write things and say things that are simply not true.”
Now, when asked about his head, Dungey still dismisses the concerns, though he again missed the final three games of last season; that “upper-body injury” was sustained after receiving a hit near his head against Clemson. Dungey has said he could have played those three games, but that Syracuse held him out. Dungey remains aware of the public perception that he lives tenuously on the edge of football eligibility because of his many assumed concussions.
“Everyone thinks that they know what happened to me,” Dungey said one day after practice, “but they’re not doctors.”
The voices close to him still offer warning.
“Oh my God,” Hunt said, “I literally, like, almost strangled him to slide. I used to yell at him at practice, ‘If you don’t slide, we’re fighting when we get in the locker room.’”
Jessica Sheldon | Staff Photographer
When Dungey’s natural instincts overrode his words, Hunt felt the same frustration as the two Lakeridge coaches before him. Hunt feared for Dungey the most, though, because watching his protégé play felt like looking in a mirror. Hunt relied on his legs and finished with more career rushing touchdowns (13) than passing (11). Hunt remembered playing Notre Dame at Metlife Stadium in 2014 and, even on third down with 24 yards to go, being unable to resist the beckoning of an open field.
“When you’re playing,” Hunt said, “you can’t help it.”
Hunt told Dungey about Drew Bledsoe, who in 2001 signed the then-richest deal in NFL history with New England, and six months later was crushed by a defender while scrambling and never started for the Patriots again. He’d been replaced by Tom Brady. Hunt didn’t want Dungey to find himself in a similar situation.
“Bro, this is the worst ever,” Hunt told Dungey before graduating that spring. “Seeing your team lose, and you can’t do anything to help. … I didn’t get to finish. I broke records, and I never got to build on it. I gave everything to this and I can’t help my team. You feel forgotten.”
This summer, Hunt said, Dungey texted him, “T, I’m sliding,” as well as an update that he was up to 222 pounds, right at the weight he wanted to absorb the hits he takes. He also hasn’t spent this past offseason learning a new offense for the first time ever, Tim Dungey said.
“His head is in such a great place right now,” Tim said.
In training camp, multiple wide receivers said, there has been a noticeable difference in Dungey’s approach when plays break down. That he throws short passes instead of running himself. This year is the year words finally become altered actions, Dungey said, because he understands the offense better now. Because he’s played in it for a year. Because before, he relied on running when he didn’t know what else to do.
“I definitely (want to be a pocket passer),” he said, the newest version of his annual preseason proclamation.
This season, Eric Dungey plans on running less.
Banner Photo by Jessica Sheldon
Published on August 30, 2017 at 12:30 am