It’s not really a secret at this point that the calling card for Syracuse football in its three years under Dino Babers has been the high-flying, high-octane, don’t-let-the-defense-breathe offense. I mean, for goodness sakes, the hashtag surrounding the team for each of the past three years (#OITNF if you’ve somehow forgotten) is all about just how quickly the Orange want to play on offense.
That’ll still all hold true when the 2019 season opener comes around next Saturday against Liberty, but the fun and interesting wrinkle in a campaign with high expectations is just how good the other unit is gearing up to be.
For the first time in his tenure, it looks like Dino Babers is very confident in just how strong his defense is. In fact, he seems to think that they will be the best unit for the Orange when SU opens things up against the Flames next weekend.
But just how good can the D be this season? Each of the last three years, they’ve been the consensus weakest unit on the team behind the up-tempo offense and one of the best special teams units in the country. This is a unit that two years ago, fell apart at the hands of Middle Tennessee State inside the Dome. Could they really make that big of a jump and be the strength for Syracuse this season? As we’re about to dive into, the answer might just be a resounding yes.
The Returning Starters
The biggest plus for the defense this season for Syracuse is that they return a TON of experience and production from a season ago. SU returns 7-8 starters (depending on if you count LB Andrew Armstrong as a starter from a season ago with the nickel scheme SU utilized) that forced a Power Five-best 31 turnovers a season ago and nearly all of those guys come at high impact positions.
The pass rushing duo of Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman are both back for their senior seasons and are primed to be even more effective than they were a season ago when they each had double digit sacks and combined for nearly 30 tackles for loss. One was an All-ACC performer after the year and the other almost certainly should have been and was one of the major snubs from the postseason awards. There’s no doubt that they’ll be ultra-productive once again this season and may end up being one of the best pass rushing units in the country, and no, that is not an exaggeration.
The interior defensive line lost a big piece (perhaps the biggest piece both figuratively and literally) on defense in Chris Slayton and the only returner on the interior, McKinley Williams, suffered a leg injury that has him pegged to be out until week 2 or 3 of the season. That means that defensive tackle is a bit of a question mark, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
As for the secondary which some believe can be one of the best defensive backfields in the country, the Orange return four of their five starters from a season ago. Sophomore Andre Cisco is a preseason first-team All-American while the combination both starting corners from are back in the form of Chris Fredrick and Scoop Bradshaw, although Bradshaw has been shifted into a backup role and will be replace by redshirt sophomore Ifeatu Melifonwu, more on him a moment. Sixth year man Antwan Cordy also returns to be a guy that can play any of the three secondary positions (field corner, nickelback, safety).
Needless to say, the guys that are returning to start for SU (and/or guys that have started in the past but will play in a backup role this season) make this an exciting defense for the Orange.
The “New” Guys
The reason we’ve got new in quotation marks is because none of these guys are really “new” and all played significant roles last year for SU. On the defensive line, it all starts with Josh Black and Kenneth Ruff. Black missed some time with an injury last year, but he’ll be leaned on heavily to help replace the production of Slayton. He’s also probably the strongest guy on the team and has the opportunity to dominate interior offensive lineman with a combo of that strength and an outstanding amount of athleticism for an interior D-lineman. Ruff will have to fill in for Williams in the first few weeks but showed promise last season with 19 tackles with 4.5 of them being for a loss.
The linebacking corps has the most amount of turnover from 2018 to this season with the loss of the team’s top two tacklers (and starting LBs) in Kielan Whitner and Ryan Guthrie. Andrew Armstrong also played a ton of snaps a year ago and had 45 tackles and a huge interception against NC State, so he’ll provide some leadership at that spot while Lakiem Williams, a JUCO transfer that played seven games a year ago, will have to learn on the fly and prove his worth as the second LB.
Out in the secondary, Iffy Melifonwu is set to be the second starter at corner opposite Fredrick and he’s a really exciting guy. He had one of the best individual performances of the season when he absolutely shut down North Carolina in the 2OT game last season. On top of that he brings some much needed length and athleticism to the second corner spot where Scoop Bradshaw was last year. Rounding out the “new” starters is true sophomore Trill Williams who will man the nickelback spot this year and had the second most impressive freshman season defensively for SU last year (behind only Cisco) and has an opportunity to continue to be a high-impact player this season.
The Key Backups
The two most interesting backup spots on this defense come in the form of the linebackers and the interior defensive line. Sophomore Juan Wallace and true freshmen Mikel Jones and Lee Kpogba will all battle for playing time at linebacker and we all know how good Jones and Kpogba are supposed to be, but don’t underestimate Wallace because many people around the program appear to be very high on him after getting a year under his belt last season after high school at IMG Academy.
As for the interior linemen, with the injury to Williams and Black having to take on the Slayton role, Curtis Harper and Shaq Grosvenor may see more playing time than they initially thought they would. That means that even though Black and Ruff are really good, there’s a big question mark at least until Williams returns and perhaps even after that because of just how fantastic Slayton was last season.
Five Burning Questions
- How do Scoop Bradshaw and Antwan Cordy factor into this defense in a diminished role with youngsters in front of them?
- How deep are the Orange at linebacker? There are a ton of guys with a ton of talent, but they’re young and inexperienced. Can they overcome those “issues”?
- Can Andre Cisco replicate his outstanding freshman year and avoid the sophomore slump?
- How does the McKinley Williams injury impact the defensive tackle spot in the early goings and for the remainder of the season?
- How good can the pass rush be?
Bottom line, this is the best defense that Dino Babers has had in his four seasons as the head coach at Syracuse. He’s got one of the best pass rushing duos in the country in Robinson and Coleman and an experienced secondary with young playmakers that can make high-impact plays at any given time. As long as the defensive tackles can hold up and replace the production of Slayton and the depth at linebacker is legit, this could be a very special unit for SU in 2019.