Another wakeup, another day closer to Syracuse Football! The Fizz had you covered all offseason and of course the coverage runs up all the way to and throughout the 2021 season. As we continue the countdown to kickoff, let’s evaluate SU’s position groups on both sides of the ball and rank them. How high each group is slotted will depend on depth, talent, and production. We’ve already done the offense, now let’s get into the defense.
- 1. Linebackers
There’s no debate to be had here, this group is easily the most talented and productive. Last season featured a learning curve for veterans Mikel Jones, Geoff Cantin-Arku, and even Stefon Thompson. Each member of the tremendous trio was recruited by SU’s former defensive coordinator Brian Ward for his system.
Tony White came in last season and rewrote the map as far as defense goes with the 3-3-5, but Jones, Cantin-Arku, and Thompson all flourished. The new-look unit led the ACC with 2.2 takeaways per game led by Jones’ four interceptions.
Thee three linebackers have combined for 206 career tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, eight and a half sacks, and ten forced turnovers (interceptions, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries).
As you can see the group has produced and there’s also some quality depth. Despite the departures of Lee Kpogba and Tyrell Richards, SU has more talent in the stockpile.
Marlowe Wax comes to mind first, he has the potential to be a breakout defender for Syracuse in 2021. The converted running back played in all eleven games last season and even started one. Wax racked up 33 tackles, five and half tackles for loss, and three sacks. Keep an eye out for 32 in Orange because he might snatch a starting job from one of the names listed above.
- 2. Defensive Line
This might be a hot take but the room is loaded with experience. Super seniors McKinley Williams and Josh Black return for their sixth seasons of ball and fifth-year Kingsley Jonathan is back to cap off his SU career. Much like the linebackers, these three went through a learning curve in the 3-3-5 after years of running a four down line base defense.
Black told the Fizz at the ACC Kickoff that he and his counterparts are much more comfortable in the system this season and understand its nuances. Could this lead to big improvement from the defense this season? Well the forward strides start with the trenches (on both sides).
Across five seasons of action, Williams has totaled 99 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, and two and half sacks. In the same span, Black has racked up 120 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, and seven and a half sacks. In four seasons of work, Jonathan has recorded 81 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, and ten and a half sacks.
The top three is experienced, productive, and talented so how does the depth look? Pretty good.
Some names to know are Curtis Harper (28 tackles, three and half tackles for loss, two sacks), Cody Roscoe (20 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks), Caleb Okechukwu (14 tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack, and Kevon Darton (five tackles). SU needs this group of reserves plus some other talented youngsters to contribute and be ready to play if need be.
- 3. Defensive Backs
There is definitely a valid argument to put defensive back at two and defensive line at three. The thing that separates the two groups is experience and production. SU has to replace three professional secondary members in Andre Cisco, Iffy Melifonwu, and Trill Williams.
Yes, Syracuse played without Cisco and Williams for a lot of 2020 which allowed several underclassmen to see significant time early. However, there was still a veteran presence with those guys on the sideline during practices and games. Can the young defensive backs continue on a positive developmental trajectory? If the answer to that question is yes then this unit could be the best on the team in 2022 depending on how the LB room looks.
Garrett Williams is the headliner for this group. The freshman All-American via The Athletic is back with a new number and much more respect across the ACC. The third year cornerback led the conference with twelve passed defended and now takes on the challenge of being SU’s top defensive back.
The other corner spot is up for grabs but the safety spots should be manned by Jahad Carter and Eric Coley. Carter started ten games and led all defensive backs with 67 tackles. Coley was sidelined after the 2020 season opener at North Carolina and enters his fifth season at Syracuse. Will he keep his job at strong safety?
Elsewhere Rob Hanna is back after replacing Cisco at the rover spot. The Miami native started the final nine games of the 2020 season and recorded 55 tackles with a pair of tackles for loss and a pick. Can he hold onto his job at the hybrid spot of will New Mexico State transfer Jason Simmons Jr. seize it?
Simmons played in eleven games as a true freshman at NMSU and started eight. He’s a playmaker and was a big get for White and Company through the transfer portal earlier this spring.
Also in the defensive back room is true freshman corner Duce Chestnut, former four-star Neil Nunn, and third year safety Adrian Cole. This group is talented, young, and stocked with potential. Can it produce at a high level despite major departures? We’ll find out when SU opens the season on the road at Ohio on September 4th.