SU football is officially one-fourth of the way through its season and we’ve seen some ups and downs on both sides of the ball. The defense has been surprisingly impressive through the Orange’s first three games, so let’s take them to school and give out grades to each of the defense’s position groups.
Defensive Line: B
The D-Line has been the surprise position grouping of the season for this Syracuse defense. Last season was simply abysmal for the hogs up front as they finished 115th out of 128 FBS teams in sacks and 108th in rushing defense. This season, however, has come as a pleasant surprise for the big men. Defensive ends Chris Slayton and Kendall Coleman have been especially impressive for SU, clogging up running lanes and putting consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Slayton forced a crucial fumble in week 2 versus Middle Tennessee, while Coleman leads the defensive line with a stout 16 tackles so far this season. While it’s been better than expected, the defensive line can certainly make some improvements in the coming weeks. While the pressure has affected quarterbacks, it’d be nice to see the Orange finish off a few more sacks in the coming weeks. That being said, there’s been a lot to be happy about with the front four.
Coming into the season, the linebacking corps was clearly the strongest part of the Syracuse defense, and they’ve shown exactly why through the first three games. For this group it all comes down to the dynamic duo of Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett and, well, they’ve been nothing short of impressive. The senior tandem leads the team with 16 and 17 tackles apiece and simply decimated Central Michigan this weekend, exploding for eight tackles each. Outside of Bennett and Franklin there have been a few other backers that have impressed so far this season. After missing Week 1 vs Central Connecticut State, Jonathan Thomas reintroduced himself to the Orange faithful with an interception against Middle Tennessee. Meanwhile, Bowling Green transfer and Dino Babers disciple Austin Valdez has already forced two fumbles on the young season. In terms of improvement for the linebackers, there’s not much to improve on. If they can tighten up in the passing game and continue to make big plays, this group should be just fine.
Defensive Backs: B-
In all fairness to this Syracuse secondary, losing Antwan Cordy was a big deal. He brought leadership and athleticism to the defensive backs that the rest of the guys just can’t provide. It’s been pretty clear that they’ve been the weakest grouping for the Orange defense in 2017. SU hasn’t even faced the best quarterbacks it will see in 2017 (Lamar Jackson is still looming on the horizon) and already there have been some massive holes exposed by the likes of Brent Stockstill and Shane Morris. In week 2, the DBs looked great through the first three quarters against Middle Tennessee, but then gave up a 48-yard touchdown where they were completely exposed on the first play of the fourth quarter. They have shown flashes of brilliance (Evan Foster’s pick-6 vs. CMU), but they’ll have to be much better and more aggressive moving forward if they want to remain competitive. One thing to look out for: Jordan Martin as Antwan Cordy’s replacement over the next couple of weeks.
Special Teams: C
I’ll start by saying this, the special teams unit looked fantastic this week against Central Michigan. Punt returner Sean Riley and punter Sterling Hofrichter both “peacocked” in the words of Dino Babers on Saturday, but the same can’t be said for the rest of the season. The turning point of the week 2 loss to MTSU came when Hofrichter simply walked out of the back of the end zone for a safety after a bad snap on a punt. It certainly looked like he had time to get a kick away and the play was simply frustrating to watch. In that same game, Riley muffed a punt that led to a Blue Raiders touchdown. While they’ve been disappointing, perhaps the most discouraging member of the special teams has been senior kicker Cole Murphy. The four-year starter has already missed two kicks this season (one field goal and one extra point) and has struggled to keep kickoffs in bounds, shanking two versus CMU. Special teams can win and lose close football games for teams and if SU wants any chance at competing down the stretch, its kicking and returning units have to be more technically sound.