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2016 Syracuse Football defense: A year in review

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In a season where SU gave us a lot of points, the defense did itself no favors by trying to do too much.

North Carolina State v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Simplicity is the key to brilliance. In football, it’s hard to put together a top defense but the ones who keep it simple and do the little things well succeed. In year one of the Dino Babers era, we saw a Syracuse Orange defense trying to do too much.

A new scheme takes time to learn and get comfortable with, especially at the college level. Implementing a new zone-heavy scheme reliant on disguise, keys, and range is hard to do. It can make movement in the secondary look uncomfortable, especially if communication is poor. I think this year’s SU defense struggled in these areas because they were trying to process too much information related to scheme, technique, and adjustments.

The rash of injuries didn’t help either. Antwan Cordy went down early in the season and when you lose a great player at a position that holds so much together defensively, you’re likely to see the breakdowns we saw throughout the year. In his absence, Daivon Ellison stepped up to record 90 tackles this season. Sure-tackling safeties are valuable in any defense and as his coverage skills develop I think he’ll become one of the better players for the Orange.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Though I know most of these guys and love them to death I can’t make excuses. Finishing 119th in pass defense, it’s clear the secondary needs work. Losing Corey Winfield next season doesn’t help. In this defense, corners are often times primary run defenders, in many cases tasked with protecting the perimeter. Winfield was one of the better tacklers at the position and as a whole this secondary really needs to improve as tacklers.

Scheme wise, zones were way too soft and yards per completion averages were atrocious. Next season I’d like to see this group come out with more competitive fire. This defense directly relies on this group’s ability to make plays on the ball and without those turnovers this defense will continue to struggle. This season it was clear the secondary was over-thinking assignments and didn’t have a clear understanding of the little things to put them in position to make plays.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame vs Syracuse Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The linebacker unit had a phenomenal season reading and reacting. Zaire Franklin and Paris Bennett earned All-ACC honors and Ted Taylor showed incredible growth from last year to this season. This unit must continue to be the engine of this defense.

Personally I’d like to see linebackers get to attack more. I was raised in a pressure defense under Scott Shafer and I think it would be to this defense’s benefit to see Zaire and PJ get more opportunities to rush the backfield. This defense severely lacked penetration through the line of scrimmage this season and unleashing the linebackers might help.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse finished 109th in run defense this season and I think the majority of that ranking falls on the defensive line. People don’t generally see what goes on in the trenches but, for d-linemen, gap integrity is their most important responsibility. All too often stretch-runs and zone blocking schemes exposed linebackers and rushing plays went for large gains. The ACC is full of talented runners and big offensive lines. If Syracuse wants to see any improvement on defense I think it starts upfront. This group will need a great offseason in the weight room and on the field perfecting their craft if there will be any improvement in 2017.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

In this instance, optimism is fair. Year one was tough to watch but I still think this defense has immense potential. At times the defense flashed, and against big-time opponents too. Coach Brain Ward has a proven record putting together successful defenses and I think the Orange have the leaders and enough playmakers on this roster to make the necessary improvements heading into year two of the Babers Era.

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I hope these player insights have been informative and thank you so much for reading and commenting. Special thanks to John, Sean, and the team here at TNIAAM for having me on as a guest. I really enjoyed the experience. Until next time, GO ORANGE!