Perhaps you've forgotten all about the Syracuse Orange football team while both the men's and women's basketball teams are in the Sweet 16. Can't blame you, really. But nonetheless, we've got a football team wrapping up spring practice pretty soon, and there's plenty to discuss.
Continuing going position-by-position, we get to today's big topic:
Syracuse's defensive backs struggled mightily last year, so they have to improve... right?
Who's on campus?
Plenty of experience, which is hopefully a good thing. Antwan Cordy, Juwan Dowels, Cordell Hudson, Chauncey Scissum, Wayne Morgan and Corey Winfield are among the biggest names, all with starts under their respective belts. But they're joined by plenty more. Rodney Williams, Eric Anthony, Daivon Ellison and Kielan Whitner all gained plenty of experience themselves due to a litany of injuries over the past couple years. Beyond them, Christopher Fredrick and Joe Stanard also wait in the wings -- the former coming off a redshirt freshman season and with high hopes on being part of a solution for this secondary.
If you're lumping in the "nickelback" position here, rather than with the linebackers, that adds Jonathan Thomas and Ted Taylor to this list too. We spoke about them last week a bunch, however, so we'll keep it to the known quantities at DB this time around.
Who's arriving this summer?
Additional reinforcements to better fit Dino Babers's Tampa-2 scheme. Devon Clarke, Evan Foster and Carl Jones are all later parts of the class of 2016 brought in by Babers's staff, and Scoop Bradshaw joined with high school teammate Rex Culpepper months and months back.
Despite different recruiters and schemes for the group of four, they're all faster coverage guys -- essential for an effective implementation of the Tampa-2.
What's different in this scheme versus the last one?
Coverage, first and foremost. In the previous scheme, hard hits and big plays were the primary focus for defensive backs regardless of their exact position. You all remember the 10-yard cushions, diving arm tackles and of course disasters like a certain play against Florida State. They were the product of the program's aggressive style of play. At times, they had some quality results, and produced some NFL-caliber talent like Durell Eskridge, #SHAMARKO Thomas and Phillip Thomas. At others, it created one of the worst pass defenses in the country.
The Tampa-2, in theory, will be different. Defensive backs can still blitz, but their main prerogative is covering large sections of the field to prevent against getting beat deep (you know, like we were regularly last year). Corners are tasked with covering the flat and the edge of the field within about 10 yards or so of the line of scrimmage. Safeties, on the other hand, are tasked with larger swathes in the back portion of the field and all the way to each sideline. An easy graphic can be found here for a better look at how each player's coverage area will behave.
Could any freshmen play right away?
As we've said: Never say never with a new coach and a new scheme. But given the number of returning players on the back-half of their respective careers, Babers and defensive coordinator Brian Ward may opt for better experience over better/more exact fit. As mentioned, the new DBs are slimmer and faster, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're ready to jump into a college-speed game on day one. If any finds his way into the rotation, maybe it's Foster, who looks primed for a promising career at safety that won't wait a year?
Which position is better situated right now: Safety or cornerback?
For the moment, it may be safety. While everyone in the secondary got playing time last year given injuries, it was the safeties that appeared to rise to the occasion a bit more as the season wore on. Now that he's not transferring, Antwan Cordy will anchor things at strong safety, with either Rodney Williams or Chauncey Scissum likely opposite him. Kielan Whitner's also in the conversation back there, rounding out an experienced (assumed) two-deep.
Corners have experience with Hudson, Winfield, Morgan and Dowels -- among others -- but they've also proven to be rough around the edges thus far. Other than linebackers, they may have the biggest adjustment to make in the Tampa-2. We'll see if the current roster options are up for the task.
What's the measure of "success" in year one?
This could be tough. In 2015, SU gave up over 256 passing yards per game, which was among the 30 worst figures in the country. But that team also played at a rate much slower than this one will, and could potentially play with more leads -- forcing opponents to pass more often. And despite the abject failures of the secondary, the Orange did only give up 18 passing touchdowns all year (because opponents were too busy running on them...).
If there's anywhere we can look to measure success, perhaps it's in terms of opposing completion percentage. Last year, we allowed completions at a 64.7-percent clip (10th-worst in FBS). So improvement's both attainable and demanded there. Sub-60 should be the goal since 90 teams pulled that off in 2015.
Who are the Orange starters in the back-four?
Cordy was already mentioned, and he'll be paired with one of Scissum or Williams in a race that might be too close to call right now. Dowels could lock down one of the corner spots and Hudson's a good a guess as any for the other. If options fail to really establish themselves during spring and into summer, it's possible Ward platoons some of these positions to keep fresh legs out there and get better overall results.
Depending on your perspective, returning this much experience is either very good or very bad. While many of these players were recruited for a different scheme altogether, their ability to play the college game already can be seen positively. Obviously their demands are a bit different in a coverage-heavy scheme. But with a youth and experience, there's the chance that they can adapt quickly too. On the bright side, it's tough to get worse, so perhaps we have a built-in positive outlook here?