The transfer portal and the NFL draft decimated Syracuse’s secondary this offseason. Three of SU’s starting defensive backs are gone, which leaves just two returning first teamers. That leaves quite the hole for incoming defensive coordinator Rocky Long, so what are his options?
You can’t talk about the Orange’s new defensive backs without taking a closer look at who they’re replacing.
Firstly, a departure most ‘Cuse fans expected: cornerback Garrett Williams. He was in 2023 mock drafts before last season, and in April, his NFL aspirations became a reality. Williams went in the third round to the Arizona Cardinals, and for good reason. The former Syracuse captain was an All-ACC selection three times. Williams was phenomenal in coverage, but also played a critical role as a last-line tackler in SU’s run defense. While the Orange have a strong set of linebackers, physicality in the secondary will be the biggest loss with Williams gone.
In the transfer portal, Syracuse lost cornerback Duce Chestnut to LSU and safety Ja’Had Carter to Ohio State. Chestnut started every game as a freshman and didn’t slow down in his sophomore season. He tallied four interceptions and 13 passes defended across his two seasons with SU. The biggest aspect of Chestnut’s game that Syracuse has to replace is his versatility, as he’s shown the ability to shift to nickel as needed. With Carter, the Orange are losing a player with a knack for big moments. He led the team with four forced turnovers, and those game-changing moments have to come from someone else this year.
Two starters are back from last season: Justin Barron, a rover, and Alijah Clark, a safety.
Barron has been with Syracuse for three years, so that level of experience will be critical for rebuilding the secondary. More importantly, he’s taken big leaps each season, with his best game being the Pinstripe Bowl this past December. Barron set career highs of seven solo tackles and two tackles for loss against Minnesota. That physicality should help offset the loss of Williams and his tackling.
Clark should also provide stability this year. The Rutgers transfer started 11/12 games for SU last season and was a stingy defender. Clark didn’t allow a single touchdown in the most recent campaign according to PFF. That resume speaks for itself.
First up is cornerback Isaiah Johnson. He spent four years at Dartmouth before joining the Orange last season. While he came off the bench to start the season, he actually started towards the end of last year’s campaign when Williams went down with a torn ACL. Johnson was serviceable in that time, although doesn’t have a knack for forcing turnovers like some of his predecessors. However, the 23-year old boasts plenty of experience, which should be helpful.
Potentially lining up opposite of Johnson is Jeremiah Wilson. He’s a sophomore that played in every single game last year as a true freshman. However, that was mostly as a special teamer. While it’s good to see that the coaching staff trusted him immediately, Wilson will be a wild card this season.
Lastly, Jason Simmons Jr. is the leading option to fill in the open starting safety spot. He started a majority of games for the Orange in 2021, but was pushed out of the first team for much of last season. Still, the safety made the most of his time on the field, breaking up a team-best seven passes. A rising fifth-year senior who spent two years at New Mexico State, Simmons holds veteran status and has the potential to cause big turnovers like Carter did.
Overall, there’s a lot of promise for Syracuse’s secondary. Most of the Orange’s new troops have long been ready for the spotlight, and they should have the experience to help break in the new regime.