The unit that was supposed to be the strength of the team. The unit that returned some of the most formidable young secondary talent in the country. The unit that was supposed to have a pair of pass rushers that unleashed almost certain havoc on a weekly basis.
That’s how the SU defense was billed coming into the 2019 season. Now that we’re at the bye week and we’ve evaluated how the offense has looked, let’s do the same for the defense and see if they’ve lived up to those lofty expectations.
This was probably the hardest group to nail down a grade for simply because of the fact that they’ve had such an absolute roller coaster of the season. They started by picking up eight sacks and allowing -4 rushing yards in an absolutely dominant performance against Liberty before getting taken to the wood shed by Maryland the next week to the tune of 354 rushing yards. They more or less were neutralized by Clemson (221 rushing yards, just three QB hurries) before having a baffling performance against Western Michigan in which they dominated in the pass rush with eight QB hurries and three sacks but still got gashed for over 200 yards rushing. They were then outright dominant against FCS Holy Cross.
Kendall Coleman has been consistent this season, but not stellar like we thought we might see while Alton Robinson has been mostly quiet outside of near-career performance against Western Michigan. The interior D-line is still dealing with the loss of McKinley Williams who has still yet to play a game this season and it’s obvious they’re missing him and struggling with the loss of Chris Slayton. The backups at all four spots have performed admirably and are a big part of the reason SU ranks fifth in the ACC in sacks with 17, but it’s just not the dominance up front we were expecting and if SU wants to keep their loss total low going through ACC play, the front four is going to have to step up and turn from up and down to just up. Pass rush, keep it up. Run defense, pick it up, and quick.
This was probably the biggest question mark for the defense going into the 2019 season and while they’re certainly not going to wow you or remind you of the good old days of Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett, the duo of Lakiem Williams and Andrew Armstrong have been pretty good this season. The two top the charts in terms of total tackles on the year (and are tied for second in tackles for loss as well) and have done a decent enough job in pass coverage with a few PBUs each. Williams leads the team in sacks with 3.5 on the year and has even made his presence felt in the pass rush when he’s not getting directly to the quarterback.
True freshman and first man off the bench Mikel Jones has had, by all accounts, an excellent rookie campaign thus far and played really well in both the Western Michigan and Holy Cross games. With both Williams and Armstrong being lost to graduation at the end of the season, he, Juan Wallace and Lee Kpogba are going to be heavily relied on to make an impact in the future and from what we’ve seen from this season, there’s a good chance they keep it going and possibly take it to a new level because the depth at linebacker only gets more talented as the years go on.
Another difficult decision because the stats say one thing but, for me, the eye test says another. Up until last week when they couldn’t get one from Holy Cross quarterback Connor Degenhardt, the defense had gone 17 straight games with an interception, the longest active streak in the FBS. Couple that with the fact that the Orange rank second in the ACC with six picks on the season and you’d think that the secondary has been dominant this year and should receive a high grade. That’s why stats can be deceiving.
For example, a big part of the reason, the run game was so successful in the Maryland game for the Terps was because the SU defensive backs were repeatedly getting burnt over the middle and into soft spots in zone coverage and the Terps’ Josh Jackson was throwing all over them in the first half (his TD pass to Carlos Carriere in the second quarter especially sticks out). As everybody knows, when the pass game is going right, that opens up the run game and vice versa.
That kind of issue, plus the fact that two of your best defensive backs (Andre Cisco and Iffy Melifonwu) have missed the last two weeks with injury is not a recipe for success. The tackling from the secondary has also been suspect at best (think the Antwan Cordy miss on the 87-yard touchdown from Amari Rodgers against Clemson).
The stats say that this is a great secondary with a dominant superstar (another two interceptions for Cisco this season, but even he hasn’t been great), but the eye test and seeing them get burnt in key situations says otherwise. Eric Coley has been a bright spot over the last few weeks and Christopher Fredrick and Evan Foster have been pretty consistent, but they’re still leaving a lot to be desired.
This one’s easy. They’ve been flat-out dominant the whole year. With this week’s win after another great performance against Holy Cross (a surprise 52-yard field goal to boot), Sterling Hofrichter has now been named the ACC’s Special Teams Player of the Week twice this season (post-Clemson, post-Holy Cross). Sean Riley ranks second in the ACC in punt return average and became the program’s all-time leader in all-purpose yardage during the Western Michigan game and we can forgive him for the muff against Liberty. Andre Szmyt has been just as consistent as he was last year, nailing all five of his field goals, including one from 45 with the only blemish being a missed extra point against Maryland that was the result of a bad snap. No question about it, the best unit of the three on this Syracuse football team is the special teams and they’ve got three of the best players at their positions most definitely in the conference and quite possibly in the country.