The Syracuse Orange secondary has played inconsistently for a decade or so. Sometimes the group is slightly better, sometimes it's slightly worse. But you just know, by and large, there will be some rough patches each and every season. This season is more than just a rough patch, though, and it's a culmination of three increasingly disastrous years under DBs coach Fred Reed. This is not a hit piece on Reed or any of the players in the secondary. But rather, a presentation of facts that encourage some changes.
We start with the LSU game. On just eight completions, Syracuse was burned for 157 yards and a touchdown. Julian Whigham, in particular, was repeatedly torched for big gains while the Orange gave their usual 10-yard cushions. The previous week, against Central Michigan, SU allowed 430 passing yards (!!!) and two touchdowns on 37 completions. Against Wake Forest, John Wolford completed 31 passes for 373 yards and a score, and SU was only bailed out by three picks.
Our own Michael Burke broke down some of the issues in last week's film review, but some additional numbers on the season to give you the full scope of our problems in the secondary:
Completions Allowed: 85 (27th-most in FBS)
Opponent Completion Percentage: 64.4 percent (T-20th highest in FBS)
Passing Yards Allowed: 1020 (29th-most in FBS)
Yards-Per-Completion Allowed: 7.7 (35th-most in FBS)
Explosive Plays Allowed (All): 19 for 20+, 9 for 30+, 6 for 40+ (all in bottom-third of FBS)
... and the above is all against the "easy" part of Syracuse's schedule, outside of LSU. These totals are indicative of not just failed coverage or poor play, but a failed scheme and gameplan in the secondary. We saw it when SU defensive backs were giving CMU receivers 10 yard cushions in their own end zone (allowing an easy score). The team simply cannot continue to play this sort of defensive coverage and expect it to yield positive results. Sure, I suppose it's great that Julian Whigham is owning up to a couple key errors. But this isn't the first time we've seen the team beat like this. And if they keep ceding 10-yard cushions while relying on the pass-rush, it certainly won't be the last.
So what are the solutions?
Well, this is where things get a bit dicey. There are two clear choices in my mind, but again, they're not easy decisions to make.
1. Replace Fred Reed
Reed's tenure has been rocky at best given the secondary's diminishing returns. And while this was supposed to be a green group coming into the season, even the veterans (Whigham, Wayne Morgan) look like they've taken several steps back. The pass defense numbers may not bear out Reed doing a terrible job, but that's largely due to a resilient pass rush over the course of the last few seasons. Since he arrived, Syracuse has allowed completion percentages of 58 percent or higher each season, with last year being the high-water mark at 65.2 percent. There's no guarantees that this year's mark of 64.4 doesn't continue to increase, however, as especially as competition ramps up.
While it won't be a simple or comfortable task to replace him, there is an option to do so. And guess what? HE'S CURRENTLY ON THE ORANGE STAFF. His name is Steve Gregory, and he played defensive back (quite well) for Syracuse a decade ago. Wait... that's the last time we had a quality secondary. INTERESTING. I WONDER IF THERE'S A CORRELATION...
Seriously, though: Give Gregory the job and let's see if there's improvement. He's already done a nice a nice job with special teams quality control, and really, the pass coverage cannot get any worse than it's been thus far.
2. Bench Julian Whigham
Maybe not forever, but at least for a game or two, just to see if it sparks some improvement. Since a promising sophomore campaign, Whigham's play on the field has tanked to woeful levels. Over the summer. Scott Shafer claimed that Whigham wasn't simply going to be handed the starting job, but despite some poor returns thus far in 2015, he's still there at cornerback. Yes, the team is green at the position, but why not toss one of the younger guys out there, just to see if he can get better results? Juwan Dowels and Cordell Hudson already see the field in reserve roles. Might as well let them get a bit more game experience while platooning the starting gig.
This is not a personal vendetta against Whigham. Just a plea to do what's best for the team's coverage success. Being frank: if they're worse than what we've seen thus far, then it's time to double down on defensive backs in this 2016 recruiting class and replace everyone. I think the current young players could show promise. But if the coaches don't agree, then let's get new players in as soon as possible.
This is not a gut reaction based on one bad game. This is the result of countless poor results from the team's weakest link for several years running. Syracuse looks like they have a quality team put together, and can do some things on offense, in particular. Let's not let the weak link stay weak, when there are things the coaching staff can do RIGHT NOW to fix it and improve the Orange's chances of making a bowl game this fall.