I don’t mean to blow your mind here with this revelation, but… Syracuse’s defense was not particularly strong last year. No, I know – it’s true. The Orange football team finished the season ranked No. 122 in total defense, out of 128 teams on the FBS level. It’s quickly becoming clear that Dino Babers and his staff recognized how big an issue that is, and are not screwing around in trying to fix it.
Last season, the Orange surrendered more than 6,000 yards, which translates to just over 500 yards-per-game. Obviously, the numbers are going to be inflated a bit by how many plays and possessions wind up being given to the opposing team due to the exceptionally fast nature of the Babers offensive system, but those opposing teams churned out 6.91 yards-per-play against the Orange in 2016.
Now, the bright side is that almost everyone is back this season, and last year’s defense was awfully young. Add in the fact that Syracuse faced a potent schedule, to say the least, and it’s at least understandable, if not forgivable, to see the Orange give up such absurd numbers to opposing offenses.
But like I said, it’s becoming more and more clear that Babers and defensive coordinator Brian Ward aren’t about to make additional excuses in 2017. Because of that, we could be seeing a defense that looks much, much different than it did a year ago – and I’m talking here about the actual personnel.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting a complete overhaul is coming. After all, as I mentioned, basically everyone is back on defense. Corey Winfield and Chauncey Scissum have both left the program, and unfortunately Steven Clark’s career has come to an unfortunate and early end, but other than that? Syracuse isn’t losing much defensively, and is even getting Antwan Cordy back after his injury-shortened season.
That said, the Orange are bringing in a large number of transfers – and we’re talking about transfers poised to make an immediate impact this season. Graduate transfer linebacker Austin Valdez is the latest addition, joining fellow grad transfers Jordan Martin, the cornerback from Toledo, and Devin Butler, another cornerback from Notre Dame.
Junior college defensive back Mykelti Williams is joined by JUCO linebacker Ryan Guthrie, defensive ends Brandon Berry and Josh Allen, and defensive tackle Shaq Grosvenor. Williams began his career at Notre Dame, and Guthrie was a JUCO All-American last year. Both Berry and Allen have the potential to be immediate impact edge rushers, and Grosvenor’s role will now be even larger with the medical DQ of Clark.
It’s not outside the realm of possibility that, even with so many players returning on defense for the Orange, we could see somewhere around 4-5 new starters just from these newcomers. Valdez is the most likely candidate, having racked up 144 tackles in his last season (2015) playing for Babers and Ward. That might seem odd, since linebacker is the strongest, deepest unit on defense, but a player with Valdez’s size (6-foot-1, 236) and talent didn’t transfer in to sit on the bench. He’s a very good athlete, being a converted dual-threat QB, so it’s certainly possible he takes a starting spot as an OLB, allowing Zaire Franklin to continue his stranglehold on the MIKE position.
Meanwhile, the secondary could look almost entirely new this season. While some of Syracuse’s young defensive backs have shown flashes, the defensive backfield clearly needed help, and the influx of transfers is just what the doctor ordered. Martin has amazing size (6-foot-3, 205) for a corner, and has been mentioned as a potential NFL-caliber talent (due in large part to that size). Butler was an occasional starter at Notre Dame, and Williams could wind up being the best of the trio at the safety position. It’s a distinct possibility that all three could start – along with Cordy, most likely – in the secondary.
And really, that leads to a trickle down effect on the rest of the roster. Suddenly, talented but inexperienced players like Chris Fredrick, Scoop Bradshaw, Carl Jones, and Evan Foster are depth, instead of being relied on in the starting lineup. Daivon Ellison can continue his apprenticeship under Cordy (and Syracuse can avoid having a pair of 5-foot-8 safeties on the field together), and guys like Cordell Hudson, Rodney Williams, and Juwan Dowels can provide even more depth.
Suddenly, that word – depth – becomes a strength of that unit. I mean hell, I haven’t even mentioned redshirt freshman Devon Clarke, or any of the incoming freshmen. Speaking of…
Won’t it be nice to actually be able to redshirt a few true freshmen on defense this year? Valdez and Guthrie being added to the roster should presumably assure redshirt seasons for talented linebackers Kadeem Trotter, Nadarius Fagan, and Tyrell Richards. I mean… where will they play, otherwise? Valdez, Guthrie, Franklin, Parris Bennett, Jonathan Thomas, Shy Cullen, Andrew Armstrong, Troy Henderson, and so on, and so on. That’s a lot of linebackers who can contribute. There’s no reason to burn a redshirt at linebacker, unless it turns out one of the true freshmen is the second coming of Luke Kuechly. Only, you know… without the history of concussions and the taint of Boston College.
Last season, the Orange played a number of true freshmen across the defensive line. Kendall Coleman, Josh Black, and McKinley Williams will continue to play huge roles for Syracuse’s defense this year, but Allen, Berry, and Grosvenor will bolster the rotations at DE and DT, and probably allow Zach Morton to redshirt (though Curtis Harper will likely need to play, given the situation at defensive tackle).
It’s kind of a weird feeling to have this much depth on defense – which I realize I’m probably now jinxing, and we’ll soon hear about a rash of injuries during summer workouts. But screw it, I’m getting excited about the potential of this defense after the addition of so many potentially impact players via the transfer route.
Like I said, it’s clear that Babers and Ward saw a problem, and they are not wasting any time trying to fix it. If the Syracuse defense can jump from an abysmal 122nd in total defense to, say, somewhere in the 60s or so? We could be looking at a dangerous bowl team, even with this season’s brutal schedule.