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Syracuse football 2016 report card: Defensive backs

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I’ll do what I can with this...

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

While the Syracuse Orange went 4-8 for the second consecutive year, it was far from the same 4-8 the team saw in its final season under Scott Shafer. In Dino Babers’s first campaign, SU’s offense looked far more capable and the team looked more competitive overall. They also dealt with a boatload of injuries and a difficult schedule — both of which scuttled chances to improve in the win column this year.

Still, after what was an admittedly fun season, it’s worth looking back to see which units did well and which failed to, and how that impacted the Orange’s success or lack thereof.

We continue with...

Defensive Backs

This... went poorly all year. You don’t need to be told that yet again, necessarily. Even a former member of the Syracuse secondary (Julian Whigham) told you how poorly things went all season. Below, we’ll detail a little bit of what went wrong, then talk about the glimmers of things that went reasonably well — which yes, there were a few of those too.

For starters, the Syracuse secondary had very little ability to stop opposing passing attacks. SU had the 116th-ranked passing defense in the country, allowing nearly 277 yards through the air per game. Worse than that, just two teams allowed more yards per attempt than the Orange. At a miserable 8.9, just Florida Atlantic and Rice were worse than SU at stopping regular gains through the air.

Syracuse was also pretty terrible at stopping big plays via the passing game. They allowed more passing plays of 10 yards or more than all but 15 teams, but the numbers get worse the more you boil those down. SU allowed 12 passing plays of 50 yards or more (125th) and seven of 60 or more (also 125th). When teams had the speed to go over the top against the Orange, they did so at will.

All of that said, there were some bright spots and hope for the future.

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

As has been the case for several years now, Syracuse’s secondary was quite banged up in 2016. All four defensive back positions were a revolving door of young players, with some performing better than others. Contributors like Rodney Williams, Daivon Ellison and Kielan Whitner (and more) were tossed into the fire early, and seemed to rise to the occasion. Those three sophomores all recorded an interception (Williams had two), while redshirt freshman Christopher Frederick added one as well. The Orange recorded just 10 picks on the year. All but three were by freshman and sophomores.

Ellison and Williams playing safety were also tasked with quite a few problems deep, as the rest of the defense struggled to keep containment on ball carriers. You never want to see big tackle numbers from the safety spot, since that usually means the rest of the defense can’t make tackles in front of them. But Ellison and Williams were third and fourth on the team, respectively, in total tackles. Even if they shouldn’t have been tested as much, they acquitted themselves as well as they could.

The above isn’t to make excuses for the Syracuse secondary as they struggled with their transition from a blitz-heavy scheme under Scott Shafer to Brian Ward’s Tampa-2. SU’s defensive backs may have utilized different skills to be (sort of) effective in the old regime, but the transition asked them to apply themselves in the passing game. Old scheme or not, the secondary’s primary job is to stop the opposing pass attack. If they can’t manage that task, then perhaps someone else who can will eventually be added to the roster.

Syracuse’s transition to the Tampa-2 is still a process, and one that won’t shift overnight. Things went pretty poorly in year one, but the hope is that with more incoming talent geared toward the system in year two, we can start to see progress. While Babers will get time, we’ll see how much rope Ward gets with this defense. If this side of the ball is going to be successful, it’ll largely be dependent on this secondary and their ability to slow down foes’ offenses.

Final Grade: D