Yesterday I talked a little bit about some of the lingering questions for the Syracuse University football team’s offensive unit, so today I figured hey, let’s keep this ball rolling and tackle the defense. Pun very much intended. Chuck Bullough’s defense was the bright spot for the Orange football team in 2014, keeping the team in games when the offense was sputtering. Syracuse loses some important pieces, but all in all, it looks like the defense will again be the strength of the team in 2015.
There probably aren’t as many question marks for Bullough’s defense as there are on the offensive side of the ball, but there are certainly some issues that will need to be addressed as we head into the new season. Issues such as…
What’s Going On with the Secondary
The absolute biggest concern on defense, as far as I’m concerned, is the play of the secondary. And more than just the play of the defensive backs, but the tremendous lack of depth and experience. Now, I should amend that to say that, specifically, there’s a lack of experience and depth at the safety positions, where only three scholarship players return for 2015. Syracuse lost Durell Eskridge and Darius Kelly, last year’s starting safeties, to graduation. At the moment, the post-spring starters are Antwan Cordy and Chauncey Scissum, who each got on the field last season (Cordy played in 11 games, Scissum played in 12) but mostly on special teams.
Cordy earned some raves during spring practice, but at 5-foot-8 he’s less than ideal size to play strong safety. Last season he had 10 tackles and an interception in his fairly limited action. Scissum, on the other hand, made just four tackles in his 12 appearances. The other returning safety is Rodney Williams, currently penciled in as the “or” starter with Scissum. Williams played in just two games last year before going down with an injury, allowing him to redshirt. This is an area ripe for a true freshman to come in and earn immediate playing time, and honestly given the fact there are only three safeties on scholarship it seems like a no brainer that at least one freshman will see the field.
Hopefully, that freshman will be Marquise Blair. Blair is still hoping to qualify academically, but frankly he’s going to be challenging for a starting spot the moment he gets to campus. The 6-foot-3 stud recruit is expected to qualify over the summer, but obviously we won’t know until it actually happens. He’s arguably the most important recruit in the entire class, both due to how highly regarded he is coming in, and because he plays a position of dire need. If and when he gets to Syracuse, he has the chance to become a star in the secondary.
And About Those Cornerbacks…
Yes, I’m devoting two sections to the secondary, because that’s how important I think this group is to the direction this season takes. Theoretically, this is a position that shouldn’t bring up many questions because the Orange return two starters in Julian Whigham and Wayne Morgan, though both players have battled injuries in the past and, while both clearly have talent, fans (and presumably coaches) are waiting for them to perform at a consistent level throughout the season. Whigham in particular has a chance to be a difference maker this season, with great size (6-foot-1, 187 pounds) and athleticism to disrupt opposing passers.
Two players to keep an eye on are Juwan Dowels and Cordell Hudson, a pair of redshirt freshmen with solid size and plenty of talent. After the starters, though, there’s a massive drop off in experience on the field, so should the injury prone pair of Morgan and Whigham go down it’s going to be a crapshoot heading into the year in terms of what their backups can provide.
Are the Linebackers As Good as We Think?
It’s kind of weird how the biggest attrition to the starting lineup also happens to be at the position that looks to be the strength of the defense, anyway. Syracuse lost two starting linebackers in Dyshawn Davis and and Cameron Lynch, who by the way, just happened to be the top two tacklers on the team last season. Yet here we are looking at the linebackers as the best, deepest, and most athletic group on the defense. So the question is: will they live up to the hype?
It starts in the middle with Zaire Franklin, the sophomore who got some snaps last season and looked like a burgeoning star, and continues with Marqez Hodge. Hodge was probably playing out of position in the middle last season, and has been moved to the outside to take advantage of his athleticism. On the other side, Parris Bennett is currently penciled in as the starter and has all of the physical tools to be an outstanding outside backer. Add to those three names like Colton Moskal and Jonathan Thomas as redshirt freshmen, as well as incoming talents like Shy Cullen and Troy Henderson, and this is one of the best groups of outside linebackers that Syracuse has had in a long time.
At this point, the main question surrounding the linebacking unit is whether they’ll be good enough to make up for any potential deficiencies in other areas on defense?
Pressuring the Quarterback
Speaking of those other areas, one of the big concerns this year will be how well the front four will be able to get after the quarterback. Containing the run shouldn’t be a huge problem, as the Orange have been one of the best units in the nation over the past couple seasons at containing opposing rushers, but the team has had a tendency to get torched in the passing game. A lot of that has to do with the inability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Last season the Orange had 27.0 sacks as a team, but 14.5 of those are gone and even so, the leader in the sack category was linebacker Cam Lynch with 7.0 on the year. After him, fellow linebacker Marqez Hodge was tied with returning defensive end Ron Thompson for second on the team with 3.0 for the season. Of those 27.0 sacks, only 10.5 actually came from defensive linemen. Obviously, that number can be a little bit skewed because Bullough’s defense loves to send blitzing linebackers and safeties, so it’s not always the job of the defensive line to attack the quarterback, instead containing him and the running backs and taking on blockers to give the back seven a better chance to harass the QB.
Still, with so much inexperience in the secondary it’ll be crucial for the defensive line to step up and create a little more havoc in the offensive backfield this season. The good news is that the team returns its top defensive end in Ron Thompson, who has the look of a star in the making, but replacing Eric Crume in the middle of the line will be tough. Right now, John Raymon and redshirt freshman Kayton Samuels are listed as the starting defensive tackles, and the staff is certainly high on the potential Samuels brings to the table. Watch for freshman Steven Clark to make an immediate impact this fall, as well. At defensive end, another true freshman, Jake Pickard, is expected to get some immediate playing time and with his terrific size (6-foot-6) and motor could be an impact player from the jump.
The biggest concern this year won’t be whether or not the Syracuse defensive unit can continue its strong play, because even dating back to the Doug Marrone era when Scott Shafer was still the defensive coordinator it was clear that even if the offense sputtered, the defense would make enough plays to keep the Orange competitive against most competition. The biggest concern will be how quickly the young guys can adapt and step up their games, and I’m not just talking about the true freshmen. This lineup is full of true sophomores and redshirt freshmen, as well as some guys learning to play all new positions (like Luke Arciniega, for example, and Corey Winfield, who is still learning how to play cornerback after switching from receiver last season). The defense should still be the strength of the team in 2015. The question is, just how strong will it be?