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Syracuse football 2017 report card: Defensive backs

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The Syracuse Orange football program went 4-8 for the third consecutive season. But since I’m not one to let anything die a peaceful death, we’re rehashing the year anyway (while also looking forward a bit, too).

Another injury-riddled season provides plenty to ponder this offseason, and as we’re all acutely aware, there’s a high level of “what if” to Syracuse’s 2017 campaign as well. Between all of that, the difficult schedule and the Clemson win, it’s easy to dig around the results for just about any narrative you want.

We’ll choose a more optimistic view on all of it, but that doesn’t mean we’re avoiding criticism either. Looking back at 2017, we’re going position by position, to see what worked, what didn’t and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or lack thereof).

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Defensive backs

There was reason for cautious optimism for the Syracuse secondary in 2017. Antwan Cordy and Juwan Dowels returned, and the team brought in impact transfers in Jordan Martin and Devin M. Butler. Some growth and development from Scoop Bradshaw and Christopher Fredrick had the potential to round out an improved group.

We saw that vision for about a quarter or so, before Cordy was injured again (and subsequently lost for the season).

Martin went down about mid-year as well, after providing an excellent veteran presence from the safety spot (despite it being a new position for him).

Cordy never really factored heavily into the cornerback rotation, but Bradshaw and Fredrick showed themselves to have come a long way from last year, even if there was still more improvement to go.

Through the mid-season point, Syracuse’s secondary was not amazing, but they were better. Both Bradshaw and Fredrick made plays regularly and the safeties were able to avoid getting beat as often as we’d seen in the past. Teams still completed a big play or two per game against the Orange pass defense, but those occurrences decreased in comparison to the 2016 season. Until they didn’t.

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Like everything else in this defense, decline seemed to come rapidly in the back third of the schedule. Over the final five games of the season, each opponent averaged at least 7.2 yards per attempt. The final three (Wake Forest, Louisville, Boston College) all managed 9.6 or more. Syracuse allowed over 300 yards passing three times during the year, and all three were in those final five games.

While SU allowed big plays in 2016, they held teams to a lower completion percentage (just short of 58 percent). But in 2017, things sort of flipped. Orange opponents completed 60.9 percent of all throws, and managed 7.8 yards per attempt. That’s better than 2016’s mark (8.9), but the completion percentage sort of evens things out. Teams could pass, and they knew they’d likely put themselves close to a first down.

Big passing plays were also an issue once again, even if to a slightly lesser extent. This secondary wasn’t really able to generate many turnovers, so that allowed foes to attack us deep and see if we could manage a pass break-up. Many times, we didn’t. SU allowed 49 passing plays of 20 yards or more (118th in the country) and 114 pass plays of 10 or more yards (94th). The latter number’s improved, but the former figure stayed the same. Syracuse got burned about the same as they had previously on even deeper passes.

So what caused the lack of real progress from season-to-season?

Youth is a big part, though one that gets overstated. Injuries are certainly a factor. You could see that the team was playing much better in the secondary when Martin was healthy at safety, versus afterward.

But eyes do have to turn a bit toward the Tampa-2 scheme — or at least its fit with the personnel we had on the field this past year.

The Tampa-2 needs fast corners who are quality tacklers to cover a large patch of grass from the line of scrimmage to about 20 yards out. For what it’s worth, I think Fredrick is a sound cover man, but that’s not necessarily an asset here. With him and Bradshaw covering a good chunk of the field to the outside, it created holes in the middle for a linebacker group that also wasn’t built for their coverage role.

Over the top, you saw safeties bite on fakes or other route complexities fairly often. Same goes for the young corners. The safety position would frequently sit out on an island against a quicker receiver streaking down the field. When Martin was back there, SU had a chance to make a play on the ball. When he wasn’t? Things were far less certain. Rodney Williams acquitted himself well enough back there, but he couldn’t necessarily bail out the scheme’s struggles to stop the downfield passing game.

Syracuse v Miami Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

After a season in which Syracuse gave up 276 passing yards per game, they gave up about 247 in year two under Babers. That’s progress, but the subtext there is all of the details stated above. The total yards were better, but the play-to-play efficiencies in getting stops was barely so.

Without an ability to create turnovers, it puts a ton of stress on this defense to make stops by way of tackling. The Orange showed that was sustainable to a certain extent last year, but the wear and tear on the defense eventually took its toll. Takeaways aren’t the only way to play quality defense. But they’ll need to be a bigger part of the repertoire for 2018’s group, especially with linebackers likely taking a step back.

Grade: C-