‘Cuse Countdown 2018 Football Preview: Defense
This article is the second in a four part series previewing the Syracuse football team.
Click here to read the preview of the offense.
‘Cuse Countdown’s preview of Syracuse football rolls on with a look on the defensive side of the ball. Last season, the Orange struggled with injuries and giving up chunk yardage. Analysts Owen Valentine and Cameron Macaulay break down Syracuse’s defense for 2018.
Syracuse’s secondary seems to be a bit of a mystery as a whole. It appears that the unit should be in good shape due to the return of last year’s opening day starters Scoop Bradshaw, Antwan Cordy, Evan Foster, and Chris Fredrick; but after that, there are a few concerns. When you take 2017’s graduates plus four young talents that transferred out of the Orange program, it leaves an overall lack of secondary experience. On top of that, Coach Babers and company have experimented with switching to a 4-2-5 defensive formation which shifts Cordy to the nickelback, but in a season with depth and experience questions, it could have some kinks along the way. The switch from four to five in the secondary appears to open a spot for true freshman Andre Cisco, who will compliment Cordy at free safety when the redshirt-senior isn’t at nickelback. The Orange looks to some other newer faces in the secondary as well this season. Redshirt sophomore Devon Clarke returns after being reinstated into the program, redshirt freshmen Ifeatu Melinfowu and Eric Coley look to make an impact in their first season of play, and true freshmen Trill Williams and Cam Jonas are still in battles for backup roles. Add in Allen Stritzinger, who converted from running back to nickelback, and the secondary backups show some promise. However, inexperience may hold the unit back.
Redshirt senior Antwan Cordy is one of the main focuses of this new defensive formation. The nickelback provides him an opportunity to better showcase his unique defensive skill set. Cordy is just 5-foot-8, 181 pounds, but has shown in his time at Syracuse that he has the ability to hit with the force of a linebacker. From the nickelback spot, Cordy can be used as an extra defensive back in coverage, where he can take advantage of his speed when lining up again slot receivers, and also be used as an extra blitzer on the quarterback. The one hold up with Cordy is his injury history. With such a muscular build, it leaves an increased risk of muscle tears, which places an increased importance on running back turned backup nickelback Allen Stritzinger.
The Orange returns both of last season’s starters at cornerback in Chris Fredrick and Scoop Bradshaw. The duo have the capabilities to have very strong seasons, as Fredrick looks to build on last season’s success and Bradshaw returns to full health after playing the latter half of last season with only one healthy arm. After the two starters, there are some uncertainties, Ifeatu Melinfowu comes off a redshirt season and should be the top backup. Four-star true freshman Trill Williams currently holds the second backup cornerback slot after his first preseason on the hill.
Evan Foster, who led the secondary in tackles last season, is set to start at safety again this year, but with Antwan Cordy spending some time in the nickelback, it leaves the door open for Andre Cisco. The true freshman has taken his reps with the first team, but his youth might put the starter roll up for grabs. Redshirt sophomore Devon Clarke could jump into that role early on after he sat all of last season due to suspension. True freshman Cam Jonas and redshirt freshman Eric Coley are still in the race for the second backup slot. Coley looks to be the early frontrunner, however, as Jonas is coming off an ACL tear suffered last season.
Defensive Line and Linebackers
Syracuse’s front seven was one of the most intriguing units on the team last year, and now more than ever having a strong front end to a defense is a necessity in college football. Georgia, Clemson, and Alabama have thrived off stuffing rushers and sacking quarterbacks, so how does the Orange front seven step closer towards the nation’s elite? The answer lies in situational performance.
Passing downs are downs in which a team is most likely to pass for easy yardage – second-and-7 or more, and third/fourth-and-5 or more. Standard downs are every other down. Theoretically, most defenses are better on passing downs than standard downs; when you know the offense is going to pass it you can better plan a defensive play, but last year, the Orange was an outlier; SU’s success rate allowed – a measure of how efficiently a defense prevented plays from being successful – on standard downs was 46.5 percent, exactly the national average. On Passing downs, however, Syracuse had a 34.8 percent rate – 4.1 percent below the national average and 111th nationally. The Orange gave up big plays last year, especially through the air, and a lot of the good work the defense did on first and second down was all undone. Limiting those plays is the single most important thing for SU’s defense this year.
Most people who watched Syracuse last year know the defense struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks, with an adjusted sack rate of 110th nationally. But split this between standard downs and passing downs and the numbers become downright ridiculous. On standard downs, SU sacked the QB 6.0 percent of the time, a mark good enough to place 44th nationally. On passing downs, however, when a defense normally has the advantage, the national average sack rate was 7.8 percent last year. Syracuse’s sack rate was an abysmal 1.3 percent. This ranked dead last in the country; 130th out of 130 teams. It’s not an exaggeration to say that SU’s win total is proportional to its sack numbers; if this front seven can get to the QB consistently, it could propel Syracuse towards the upper half of the ACC, and if not, the Orange might struggle again.
All of this may come down to how the Orange replace three of its most important players on defense from last season. Zaire Franklin, Paris Bennett and Jonathon Thomas played significant roles at linebacker for Syracuse throughout their careers. With all three graduating, SU has a big hole to fill on the entire second level of the defense with all inexperienced players. Throughout the preseason, this hole has been exposed, with Dino Babers continuously saying that the run defense is struggling significantly more than the pass defense. Andrew Armstrong, Ryan Guthrie and Kielan Whitner get the first crack at leading the linebacking core and replacing the key seniors quickly this season.
Front Seven Players to Watch
DE Alton Robinson
Alton Robinson burst onto the scene as SU’s primary pass rusher last year, and his 5 sacks were more than twice as many as any other player. With a full offseason under his belt, and a full training camp this year, he could be a threat to double that number this year. That gives the Orange one staple on the defensive line.
LB Kielan Whitner and LB Ryan Guthrie
The single biggest question the Orange will need to answer defensively is how to replace production of Paris Bennett and Zaire Franklin. Based on Babers’ depth chart, Whitner and Guthrie are the guys selected to do it.
Whitner, a former linebacker turned safety, returns to his natural position this season behind the D-line. His experience though as a safety compliments his skill set in the middle, as now Whitner has more experience playing in the secondary, which could greatly help the 4-2-5 defensive scheme SU has turned to. The way football has evolved has created a place for these traditionally undersized linebackers who can hold their own in coverage, and Whitner could thrive in his new starting role this season.
Guthrie enters this season going through the opposite change of Whitner. A linebacker, who converted to DE with the Orange, now returns back to linebacker with a pass rushing skillset seldom seen behind the line. He could rack up tackles in the backfield and snag some sacks as the more aggressive LB with Whitner and nickelback Antwan Cordy providing screen behind him, but his coverage skills could also be exposed by smart-thinking offensive schemers; something the ACC has no shortage of.
DT Chris Slayton
Zaire Franklin and Paris Bennett are gone, and that means Slayton is the dude for this defense. in terms of raw size, he’s hard to compete with; an absolute unit at 6-foot-4 and 309 pounds, Slayton can eat up the middle and clog rushing lanes all on his own, let alone next to four other linemen, and the big man is already the program’s active leader in tackles for loss, sacks, and forced fumbles. That doesn’t mean there aren’t areas Slayton can improve in; much like most of the defensive linemen, his sack tally of just one was underwhelming, and SU gave up big rushing plays last year, but make no mistake – Slayton has an NFL body and an NFL skillset. His leadership will set the tone for the defensive line and beyond.