A lot has been made of what Syracuse’s 2018 potential can be. While the high-flying offense seems to be a given for the Orange, the team’s success rests on what the defense brings to the table. Last season was an inconsistent one on that side of the ball, which led to some games slipping away at the end of the year.
Statistically, SU finished 105th out of 129 teams in total defense, which ranked ahead of only Wake Forest in the ACC. Now, Syracuse has to make up for those struggles while losing its two best players from the year before. The Orange lost linebackers Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett to the NFL, which opens a massive hole at the position for 2018.
Despite these deficiencies, the team remains optimistic as every team does, whether rational or not. But there is reason for hope. It’s youthful, but there is potential behind it.
It’s year three for head coach Dino Babers, which means “his guys” are the ones that are overtaking the program. While that means more on the offensive side than defensive side with a coach like Babers, he’s shown his effectiveness on the recruiting trail which should mean better results on the defensive side.
“I realistically think that [the defense] should be better,” Babers said. “I think that we’re more talented over there on that side of the ball since I’ve been here. This is the most talent we’ve had on that side of the ball since we’ve been there. Some of that talent is very experienced like the young men sitting behind me, and some of that talent is very inexperienced.”
From a strategic point, SU is going to a nickel defense. It was thought in the spring that Antwan Cordy would flip from defense to offense, but that’s no longer the case. Cordy enters as the team’s starting nickelback. The Orange is certainly thankful for freshman Andre Cisco. A lot of buzz has been surrounding him in the spring and summer, which has been good enough to slot him in as the starting safety.
Because of the extra defensive back, SU narrowed down the linebackers to two starters. Kielan Whitner and Ryan Guthrie come in as seniors and bring a lot of experience after a couple of years learning under the muscle of the Orange’s defense.
“They’re vets. They fill in Zaire and Parris Bennett’s shoes,” nose tackle Chris Slayton said. “Those are big shoes to fill, but our young linebackers, they’re young and aggressive, and it’s only going to help us out a lot.”
Babers understands the importance of the position, and how could he not after having one of the best linebacker duos in the conference last year. But the level of importance he puts on the position is pretty high.
“It all depends on those linebackers,” Babers said. “They’re like a young puppy. They’re going to be a great house dog someday, but right now sometimes you open up the living room and it’s like what the heck is going on.”
“It all depends on those linebackers… they’re like a young puppy. They’re going to be a great house dog someday, but right now sometimes you open up the living room and it’s like… what the heck is going on.”
— Orange Fizz (@OrangeFizz) July 19, 2018
As for the rest of the defense, there’s a lot of returning experience and talent. Scoop Bradshaw and Christopher Frederick both return to their starting spots. Both cornerbacks proved that they can play against the best of the best in the ACC. Now the question is whether or not they can do it on a consistent basis.
The defensive line is going to be the unit that has the most potential to excite. Slayton figures to be one of the best tackles in the conference and Alton Robinson burst onto the scene last season as a JuCo transfer. But a lot of the potential of the team relies on its health. The Orange was without starters Kendall Coleman and Josh Black for the majority of the season. Obviously health is an uncontrollable misfortune of the game, but if SU stays healthy on the line, expect to see the team’s ACC-worst 16 sacks go up from last season.
If the defense is consistent this season, the Orange looks a lot more like a seven win team. But if shades of last year come out, SU’s ceiling is five wins.