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For Syracuse University linebacker Marquis Spruill, the middle is the place to be. Spruill spent his junior year of high school playing offensive guard and defensive tackle for a lackluster Hillside (N.J.) High School football team that went 0-10.

For his senior year, Spruill was moved to middle linebacker and his team went all the way to the state semifinals.

"In high school, when I first started playing it, I just had a natural knack for flying to the ball and getting to the backs," Spruill said. "I loved it because I was able to make plays. I just feel more at home being in the middle of everything. I just feel better there, more comfortable."

After a year of playing outside linebacker at Syracuse, Spruill is getting a chance to return to his position of choice for his sophomore season as the Orange try to go to two straight bowl games for the first time since 1999. The team has 13 returning starters and begins its season Sept. 1 at the Carrier Dome against Wake Forest.

Starting quarterback Ryan Nassib returns with senior running back Antwon Bailey. Receivers Alec Lemon and Van Chew, who combined for nine touchdowns last year, are also back. For the defense, it's a different story.

Defensive ends Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich return, but gone are All-Big East linebackers Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue, who helped lead a linebacker unit that made 303 total tackles last season. This year's group made 62 of those, with Spruill making 51.

That's probably one of the reasons linebackers coach Dan Conley moved Spruill to the middle of "Mike" position.

"The 'Mike' linebacker, whether he is a leader or not -- he is a leader of that defense," Conley said. "I don't care if he is a freshman or a senior. I've been trying to educate him and let him know that that's a really important role. If you're the 'Mike' linebacker of that defense, you've got 10 sets of eyes looking at you."

Yesterday's freshmen are indeed tomorrow's veterans, but up to this point Spruill's role as a leader is more of a work in progress.

Conley said he has liked the leadership qualities Spruill has shown, but even Spruill admits that at this point he is more of a leader by example than by words. But ask Spruill's high school coach John Power, and he'll tell you that's not necessarily a problem.

Power coached at Hillside for Spruill's senior year and was the one who moved him to middle linebacker. With his team struggling in its first-round playoff game in 2008, Power watched as Spruill "changed the course of the game," with an interception that shifted the field position battle.

Coming up with the big play is what the middle linebacker does; it's what Spruill does.

"He wasn't a vocal leader, however he led by his actions and by his play," Power said. "He kept our players in line and was always helping other players to get better."

When asked what he saw in Spruill that prompted him to move him to the "Mike" position, Power points to the 6-foot-2, 223 pounder's size and speed. But the real selling point for Power was the young Spruill's physical play.

"We knew he was going to be special," Power said. "The first time we really knew it was in our first scrimmage, literally on the first play. The team we were playing ran at him, he threw the fullback off him and stopped the tailback cold and actually knocked him out from the scrimmage."

After high school, Spruill wasn't heavily recruited by any Division I programs. Power worked with Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone and offensive line coach Greg Adkins as a graduate assistant at the University of Georgia in 2000 and passed along some film of his star player.

Marrone and Adkins didn't have space on their first recruiting class in 2008, but brought Spruill in for spring practice after he spent a semester at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia.

He earned a starting spot before last season's opener and finished the year with nine tackles for loss and two sacks.

Last year, it was Smith and Hogue who were translating schemes and play calls for an inexperienced Spruill, but this year it's Spruill who is serving as the cushion between coaches and the younger players.

"It was just weird how fast everything happens," Spruill said. "I went from being a freshman to a veteran in a matter of a year. It did happen quick, but I'm ready to take on the role."

email: rmarfurt@buffnews.com