It’s odd to think that a Syracuse team with a low level offense and a middle of the pack defense from a season ago should be hyper focused individually on the defensive side of the ball. Or at least us here at the Fizz feel that the biggest weights lie on the shoulders of a mostly-returning 2021 group that ranked 6th in the ACC in points allowed. As our list of the top ten most important SU football players continues, it’s understandable with the aforementioned tee-up where number seven makes his mark on a certain side of the line of scrimmage.
For the third straight spot, our Fizz crew is rocking with a defensive player, but in a different position compared to Marlowe Wax and Chris Elmore. The seventh most important player for Syracuse football in 2022 is Darian “Duce” Chestnut in the secondary.
This should come at no surprise with Chestnut playing his tail off as a standout freshman a year ago. The Camden, New Jersey native and former four-star commit was named a Freshman All-American by ESPN, FWAA, Pro Football Focus and 247 Sports. On top of that, Chestnut finished as the runner-up in ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, second only to Clemson’s Andrew Mukuba, who tore it up in the secondary as the Tigers go-to safety, recording six pass deflections, a solo tackle in every game except one, and seven in a highly-contested bout with NC State for a Clemson team that only lost three games.
This near honor could have easily been awarded to Duce though. He closed out the season third team All-ACC after starting all twelve games at corner. The 6’0 freshman had the second-most passes defended in the conference, led the Orange with three interceptions (even with NFL hopeful Garrett Williams on the other side of the field) and became just the third Orange true freshman defensive back and first corner in the last 40 years to earn a week one starting job out of camp, joining Andre Cisco (2018) and Markus Paul (1985), who both went on to be drafted in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft. His remarkable season can be encapsulated with his stacked numbers, closing out the season with 43 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and eight pass breakups.
But what’s to come of Chestnut in the same system, but a possible sophomore slump looming over his head?
WHY SYRACUSE NEEDS HIM
The obvious answer is that he and Williams represent one of the best duos in the ACC at the corners and Chestnut’s presence often thwarts a quarterback’s desire to target whoever the SU defensive back is tasked to cover. But the less obvious answer is a speedy and youthful player who can entice the crowd and create tough throws with his pristine lateral movement.
Chestnut’s technique was often inconsistent last year. Although he finished with stellar stats, wide receivers in the ACC would breeze past him on deep balls, which made the now-sophomore look stuck in mud and unable to keep up vertically. But with a summer under his belt and Tony White in his ear, the expectations should not be too daunting and Chestnut should only elevate his game. It’s also worth mentioning that without the northeast native in Orange, the ‘Cuse would have finished with one interception all year (instead of four).
Syracuse needs Chestnut to hunker down this season and find a way to replicate what his cornerback mate Williams has done the last two seasons, fighting off the stigma that a sophomore slump is on the horizon. That will allow the Orange to repeat last season’s performance of surrendering the second fewest number of yards in the conference, while keeping the yards per average in the air and passing TDs at a minimum (SU ranked bottom half in the ACC in both of those categories last year).
If the “DUCE” chants are raining down from the Dome crowd all the way into November, then Chestnut’s season is a success. This won’t just mean the crowd is involved throughout the entire season, but it’ll speak to Chestnut’s impact on winning over the Syracuse faithful and making a clear impact with his speed, tenacity and energetic first step.
BEST CASE SCENARIO
It’s hard to follow up an All-American season, especially when opposing teams are gunning for the newfound stud most likely marking their best or second-best wideout. So the best case scenario for the 6’0 corner from New Jersey is if he does his job and shows clear improvement in the intricate aspects of his game.
With plenty of depth among SU’s opponents this season and an Orange offense that might fight success, it’s integral Syracuse locks down at least one defensive grouping. The best case is the secondary does its due diligence and carries that over to a rather belittled defensive line. This is not to say Chestnut needs to double his INT total and shut down every receiver he faces, but he does need to show clear technical improvement compared to last season.
With Garrett Williams, a possible top-three round NFL draft pick next season, covering a wideout on the adjacent side of the line of scrimmage, Chestnut will most likely contest a respectable wideout who demands the ball with a sophomore on his hip. This level of production is challenging and either solidifies the underclassman’s prowess and coachability with heightened awareness and a knack for the football early and often or it will expose Chestnut’s slow vertical movement on deep balls.
The best case scenario is Chestnut wraps up the season with over ten pass breakups and by the end of the year, no quarterback is risking a spiral in his direction.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
As a volume interception player last season, the worst case scenario is Chestnut takes a step back in terms of his first step and stride-by-stride speed. That would allow receivers from top tier programs like Clemson and Notre Dame to terrorize his side of the field and elicit a by-committee approach from White and Dino Babers. This is highly unlikely to happen with SU’s lack of experience at the cornerback position, aside from Williams and Chestnut, but it’s the worst possible situation that this defense can run into. Plus, the secondary is filled with mostly returners, while the defensive line is not, so there should be no reason that opponents’ aerial game gets the best of a 3-3-5 defense hyper focused on keeping the game in front of the safeties.
Individually, beside getting replaced or sharing a majority of his game time with a teammate, the sophomore corner can’t dip below his tackling statistics from last year. For an Orange team that was a tackle or two away from making a bowl game in 2021, Chestnut can’t afford to record fewer than 43 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. This part of his game is just as integral as keeping passes from heading in his direction.
Stay tuned for the rest of this list highlighting SU football’s top ten most important players prior to the season’s opener on September 3rd.
Sunday, August 21st – #10 Courtney Jackson
Monday, August 22nd – #9 Marlowe Wax
Tuesday, August 23rd – #8 Chris Elmore
Wednesday, August 24th – #7 Duce Chestnut
Thursday, August 25th – #6?
Friday, August 26th – #5?
Saturday, August 27th – #4?
Sunday, August 28th – #3?
Monday, August 29th – #2?
Tuesday, August 30th – #1?