The talk of the whole offseason surrounding Syracuse Football has been improvement and the search for consistency. After a 1-10 season in 2020 there are obviously a lot of areas that need to grow but that doesn’t mean everything was terrible. An argument could be made that the SU defense was very solid in year one under Tony White.
The former Arizona State cornerbacks coach installed his 3-3-5 system last season and the returns were fairly positive. Everything about last season needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Every team across the country lost valuable practice time in which plays and systems get installed during spring, summer, and pre-season camp. The defense last year was mainly working on the fly. Syracuse linebacker Mikel Jones believes his unit is finally gaining the critical understanding of the nuances of the scheme.
“Due to the short offseason last year we went into the season, we knew the defense but we didn’t know the defense like how our coaches knew the defense. I feel like the best way you can be successful on defense is to know the defense like your coach. It wasn’t until this spring where we had to go through the reps and go through the basic fundamentals of the defense where we actually knew all the moving parts like what the d-line was doing, what the back end was doing, what the corner was doing. Knowing what everyone is doing puts you in a better position.”
One person being out of position can ruin an entire play in football. So knowing the responsibilities of each position and playing within the system is critical. It appears the Syracuse defense is finally caught up to speed on Coach White’s philosophy and is ready to improve this fall.
A couple departures during the offseason left vacancies for younger players to begin preparing for bigger roles in 2021. Rotational linebackers Lee Kpogba and Tyrell Richards both left the program and opted to transfer. Luckily for the Orange, several players saw the field at the second level of the defense and are more than capable of filling the void and then some.
Geoff Cantin-Arku is back for his third season on the Hill and looks to build off a strong 2020 campaign. Last season the Canadien started ten of SU’s eleven games and racked up 63 tackles while excelling as a downhill linebacker. A whole offseason of learning and polishing should have him even more prepared this fall.
Fans often saw Stefon Thompson lined up adjacent to Cantin-Arku last season. The second-year player was the first true freshman to start at linebacker since 2011 when he earned the nod against North Carolina. The Charlotte native proceeded to see time in ten games making seven starts. Thompson flashed on the stat sheet with 35 tackles, seven and a half for loss, and three sacks. The early experience should pay dividends in 2021 and beyond.
Marlowe Wax is another talented defender that has plenty of positives to build on this year. Like Cantin-Arku, Wax played in all eleven games that the 2020 season had to offer and came on strong down the stretch. The converted running back tallied 33 tackles while also causing havoc in the backfield with five and half tackles for loss and three sacks. The Baltimore native figures to have more put on his plate this fall with Richards gone, we’ll see if he can eat.
With just a couple weeks until toe meets leather in Athens, Ohio, Jones is confident that the guys lining up next to him are ready to go.
“(Stefon and Marlowe) are so much better. Just like me they understand the defense way more and they know how to use their abilities way more as far as like pass rushing. Also Geoffrey Cantin, we got a lot of young dudes in the room that can play and they’ve gotten better since last year.”
If the young players can build off of promising campaigns last season, this defense could take a massive step forward. If you look at the stats, SU’s unit finished dead last in the ACC in yards allowed per game at 464. However, the Orange were also on the field for the second most plays in the conference. The offense should improve because really it can’t get any worse.
The point is to take the caveats away and you’re left with a unit that was average to above average last year considering the circumstances. SU allowed 5.8 yards per play in 2020 which tied for 6th in the ACC. If Cantin-Arku, Wax, and Thompson can elevate their levels of play, the 3-3-5 will be even more difficult to play against and in turn could lead to a better year for the ‘Cuse this fall.
Head Coach Dino Babers and Company get things rolling on September 4th at Ohio.