Commentary

Signs of life for Paulus, Orange

Originally Published: September 5, 2009
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Greg Paulus stood near the service entrance of the Carrier Dome, his black backpack and a postgame snack bag (banana and Snickers) leaning against a nearby wall. As he spoke about the debut that was and the win that could have been, a stadium worker hosed down a garbage can just behind him.

Welcome to big-time college football.

[+] EnlargeGreg Paulus
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIGreg Paulus threw for 167 yards, but had a costly interception.

"My interception at the end," said Paulus, almost grimacing at the memory, "that's a big mistake that I can't make and I shouldn't make. That's not acceptable."

Syracuse lost another football game -- nothing new there -- but in case you're wondering if a Duke point guard can go almost five years between football snaps -- and not look like his cleats were welded together -- the answer is yes. Not even a 23-20 overtime loss to Minnesota, made partly possible by Paulus' interception in OT, can change that reality.

"I'll tell you, he's going to be a good football player," Minnesota coach Tim Brewster said. "He just gets in the system a little longer and plays a few more games, he's going to be OK."

The Greg Paulus Experiment began with a ball snapped so far above his head that it almost grazed the Carrier Dome roof (OK, more like five feet over his head) and it ended with him throwing an interception in OT that ultimately cost Syracuse the game. In between, there were actual signs of Orange football life -- and one of the guys providing mouth-to-mouth was a graduate student named Paulus.

Paulus isn't going to make anyone forget SU quarterback legends Donovan McNabb or Don McPherson (both of whom watched from the SU athletic director's stadium suite), but the one-year rental is helping create an actual buzz in this place. Who knew that Syracuse fans could cheer?

So, yeah, Syracuse lost again, but at least this one came with effort attached. And when it was done, as SU players finished their postgame handshakes and walked slowly toward the student section and the marching band, something wonderful happened: Syracuse fans began to applaud.

"I think the direction is going in the right direction," said McNabb, who hadn't been back here for a football game since joining the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999. "How'd that sound?"

Sounds better than the Syracuse dark ages, otherwise known as 2005-2008. SU had won a combined five games in the previous two seasons and only 10 in the past four seasons. The program was so direction-challenged that it needed a Garmin. That explains why the Orange hired a new head coach (SU alum Doug Marrone) and named a new quarterback, even if that quarterback was 23-years-old, had spent the previous four years playing for Mike Krzyzewski and was an afterthought in the SU team media guide (no mug shot).

Paulus completed 19 of 31 passes for 167 yards and one touchdown Saturday. But it was that 31st attempt of the afternoon -- a forced third-down throw picked off by linebacker Nate Triplett in the end zone -- that ended the drive and set up Minnesota's game-winning field goal.

"I should have just thrown the ball in the back of the end zone," Paulus said.

[+] EnlargeGreg Paulus
Marc Squire/Getty ImagesGreg Paulus and the Orange gave Syracuse fans reason to cheer.

"He tries to make a play and makes a poor decision," Marrone said. "But when you're an athlete and you're on that football field, I'll still rely on Greg Paulus to make the right decision. He's our quarterback."

He's more than that. Paulus has been taking classes since only July 7, but he was named one of Syracuse's four team captains. Plus, there's an entire T-shirt industry built around him. On sale for $15 at the Carrier Dome concession stands: "The Devil Wears Orange," a reference to Paulus' hoops career as a Blue Devil.

Paulus made mistakes (the interception, several other throws into double and sometimes triple coverage) and his arm strength, said McPherson, has been affected by the long football layoff. But he also executed a game plan that Marrone said had a lot of "volume," perhaps too much. And Paulus' shoulder/arm fake late in the first quarter turned the Minnesota secondary into a petrified forest and allowed wide receiver Mike Williams to sneak behind for a 29-yard touchdown reception.

Still …

"I would have liked a better outcome," said Paulus, who now wears No. 2 on his jersey. At Duke, it was No. 3.

The Orange were 1-of-12 on third-down conversions. The offensive line, not a strength, gave up three sacks. There was a fumble and too many penalties. There were also several dropped passes in key situations. So Paulus had lots of company -- not that he'd ever say so.

Paulus watched the game-winning field goal attempt from the sideline with his hands on his hips. When Eric Ellestad's 35-yard kick cleared the crossbar, Paulus dropped his head, stood still for a few moments and then made his way toward the Minnesota players for handshakes. He had played relatively well, as had his team, but it was little consolation.

"No moral victories," Paulus said.

This is the ultimate work in progress. How exactly do you judge a quarterback who hasn't played in a game that counts since Nov. 27, 2004? That's how long it's been since Paulus led his Christian Brothers Academy team to the New York state AA high school football championship -- on this same Carrier Dome field. Back then he was a four-time all-state selection, the Gatorade National Football Player of the Year and holder of six state records, including career passing yardage.

But he chose basketball instead of football, Duke instead of Syracuse, which is only about 15 minutes from his family's home and only about a two miles from his high school. Football didn't make a comeback until this past March, when Paulus casually mentioned something to his Duke roommate, Griffin Tormey.

"I want to go throw the football around today," Paulus said.

Tormey didn't think anything of it.

[+] EnlargeDoug Marrone
Marc Squire/Getty ImagesDoug Marrone found a leader for Cuse in QB Greg Paulus.

"We go out there -- here I am, just lofting it up," said Tormey, a former Duke walk-on, letterman and team manager. "He's throwing perfect spirals. It was like he had been playing for four years."

Not long after the pitch-and-catch session, Paulus dropped the football bomb.

"Uh, I'm working out for the Green Bay Packers next week," Paulus told Tormey.

"What?" said his best friend.

Paulus did the Packers workout and then began looking for a college program. He settled on Syracuse and then, ta-da, won the starting job.

"I guess at first I was shocked by it," said Tormey, who now works in Chicago for Goldman Sachs. "But looking back at it, I think, 'Of course, Greg would be able to do that.'"

Krzyzewski called Paulus on Thursday. Tormey called Friday. Former Duke teammates sent text messages. Friends and family were part of the fourth-largest opening game crowd in Carrier Dome history.

Meanwhile, in Chapel Hill, N.C., Paulus' younger brother Mike, who is North Carolina's backup quarterback, watched part of the Syracuse game before having to leave for the Tar Heels' opener Saturday night. He wasn't alone -- Carolina wide receivers also watched during UNC's pregame meal. After all, some of them had run patterns for Greg during summer throwing sessions on the Carolina campus.

"I think he can be very good," said Mike, who is two years younger than Greg. "But he's going to need some help."

Earlier this week, Greg mentioned a minor personal problem he was having. Mike read him the football riot act. He texted Greg and said, "Check that at the door."

Mike even sent Greg a five-page e-mail detailing exactly what a quarterback can expect in major Division I football -- the time commitment, the physical toll, the mental preparation … everything.

"One thing, Greg's always going to give his best," Mike said. "He wants to make them proud. And to the people who don't think he can do this, he wants to prove them wrong."

By the way, Mike also told Greg that Minnesota was a good football team. He was right about that, too.

So Paulus and Syracuse are 0-1. And they travel to Happy Valley next week for a game against powerful Penn State. Disaster awaits?

"This is not a kid you're going to see go into the tank," said McPherson, recently inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. "I think that's the biggest thing for this team: Greg Paulus is not going to go in the tank. … He's a leader, he's a fighter and you can tell."

You know how you can tell? When I asked him if he was going to try to find a place that had Carolina's game against The Citadel on television, Paulus said he had other plans.

A date? A family dinner? Sleep?

"I'll probably get back and watch the film tonight," he said, "and try to learn from all the things I can get better at."

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter