The NFL Draft is just days away! Syracuse hopes to add three more names to the list of former Orange playing on Sundays. The defensive back trio of Andre Cisco, Ifeatu Melifonwu, and Trill Williams await the phone call that turns their lifelong dreams into a reality. SU fans should be right there with them watching the draft over the weekend.
Let’s take a break from the mocks and the draft itself though and bring the focus back to the Hill. How does the SU defense replace the professional talent exiting the secondary? Well the Orange kind of already got an opportunity to attack that problem in 2020.
Andre Cisco only played in two contests last season against North Carolina and Pittsburgh (thanks Ed Hendrix). The New York native was injured in the pregame warmups before the Georgia Tech game. A knee injury sidelined the NCAA’s active leader with 13 interceptions and the Orange had to look elsewhere.
True freshman Rob Hanna was called upon to take the reins at the rover spot. He had about as good of a debut imaginable. The Miami, Florida native logged nine tackles, one for a loss, and hauled in an interception against the Yellowjackets. He followed that up two weeks later against Duke with another big game. Hanna posted a career-high 12 tackles and recovered a fumble against the Blue Devils.
At 6-foot even and 168 pounds last season, he may have been a year earlier in seeing the field significantly. However, the true frosh took the opportunity and ran with it. Hanna started the final nine games of the 2020 season and finished with 43 solo tackles, a pair of tackles for loss, one pick, and one fumble recovery.
The biggest improvement needed for Hanna over the offseason was to put on weight to assist in the efforts to get through a full 12-game ACC slate. Nonetheless, the playmaking ability is there and this is one spot SU fans shouldn’t worry about going forward.
It’s not all gravy though, SU struggled to replace the veteran presence of Trill Williams. This spot may have been the weakness of the defense last year without the Yonkers, NY native. Similar to Cisco’s situation, only played in five games for ‘Cuse last season. After battling injuries all season he finally decided to declare for the NFL Draft in early November while the season was still ongoing.
Much like Rover, the Orange didn’t have many options behind Williams and had to lean on unproven and perhaps ill-prepared talent. Aman Greenwood got the lion’s share of repetitions and playing time and was inconsistent. That’s to be kind of expected though when you’re just a redshirt-freshman that came into the season not expecting to play the role he ended up in.
Additionally, let’s remember SU installed a completely new defensive scheme over the offseason with no spring practice. So take this analysis with a grain of salt. The Washington D.C. native started the final seven games at free safety and recorded 18 tackles with four pass breakups. He struggled in coverage at times and in run support as well which may be one the reasons why the Orange finished second to last in the ACC in run defense.
In any case, this position is one to be a little concerned about. That’s not to say SU doesn’t have options, all it means is that those options are unproven. Greenwood is a known entity; defensive coordinator Tony White can also deploy rising redshirt-sophomore Adrian Cole. The Florida native has battled some injuries in his young career, but he saw playing time last season and could fight for minutes.
Keep New Mexico State transfer Jason Simmons in mind as well. Rob Hanna should all but lock up the rover spot leaving Simmons as a backup. However, as Aggie the transfer played some safety so perhaps he could battle for this spot or even the strong safety spot with Ja’had Carter.
Syracuse needs to find its next lockdown corner alongside freshman All-American Garrett Williams. Unlike his defensive back counterparts, Iffy Melifonwu was able to stay healthy and played in each of SU’s eleven contests in 2020. He had a great redshirt-junior campaign and is bound to play on Sunday’s for years to come.
Back to the Salt City though, the Orange needs to replace that lost production. There are some good outlets to turn to here. The best options are Neil Nunn and Duce Chestnut.
Nunn’s SU career has gotten off to a shaky start to say the least. He came to the 315 with big expectations. He was a four-star recruit out of Florida that SU stole from big programs like Miami, Alabama, and Auburn. He has a chance to turn it all around if he can win this starting corner spot.
Chestnut is another big-time recruit that SU stole from some high profile programs. At 6-0, 190 the early enrollee has the size to bang with the big boys and since he’s getting to participate in spring ball, he’ll get acclimated to college football early. He has the playmaking ability to see the field as a freshman. If he doesn’t win a starting corner job, expect to see him as the premiere nickelback in the secondary.