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Syracuse football: Breaking down the Orange defense’s spring game

The Spring Showcase was a big opportunity for several defensive players, and they embraced it.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Football is back! Well, sort of.

Nothing screams opportunity like the spring football season. Seniors have departed, holes are scattered across the depth chart, and more life is beginning to peak in year two of the Babers era.

For young guys, spring ball is about growth -- physically, mentally and in their game. For a lot of freshman and sophomores, the words “what I could be” become “I am” by fall. Veterans are looking to perfect their craft and letting it flex.

The spring is my favorite transition period because every part of the program sets new goals. A new standard is presented and carried out throughout the season at a group and individual level. With consistency, that’s how winning happens.

I got the opportunity to come back to Syracuse and see a lot of the guys preparing for spring ball, and I was really proud of young guys I’d left becoming their own men. One night I walked into the Ensley Athletic Center around 10 p.m. to get my own workout in, and caught Rodney Williams and Chris Fredrick putting a little extra work in. It’s a small thing but it meant a lot to me to see what kind of players are dedicated to this program and willing to get better.

Those little things add up and it showed on Saturday.

Defensive Line

And the end of last season, I called for the D-Line to step it up, hit the weight room, and become a force in the ACC with Chris Slayton leading the way. This group needs depth (and gets it in the form of JUCO transfers) but I liked what I saw when they flashed.

Chris Slayton upped his weight from 296 to 314. McKinley Williams added 43 pounds to his frame and now weighs 296. Josh Black flashed pass-rushing ability, and overall the first unit looked solid. The D-Line is a unit that must rotate and stay fresh, so over the summer I’d like to see some of the guys on that second unit become a little more aggressive off the ball. Tampa-2 schemes flourish when four down linemen can get pressure.

Linebackers

While Zaire Franklin and Paris Bennett are the notable stars of the group, the spring showcase belonged to Andrew Armstrong. I loved the way he shot through his gap as a blitzer and took on ball carriers at the point of attack. Dino Babers’s offense stretches the field laterally, as well as vertically, and a lot of stress was put on Jonathan Thomas to get out and make tackles in space. He has great speed for a linebacker and plenty of range.

If he can take down those wide receiver screens with a little more effectiveness, I think he’ll have a big year. Teams like Clemson, Louisville and Florida State love to get the ball to their athletes on the outside in space. Neutralizing that attack would be huge for this defense.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Secondary

Listen, I don’t know if there was a schematic change, if secondary coach Nick Monroe just jumped on these guys, or it just finally clicked… BUT DID Y’ALL SEE THE DBs ON SATURDAY? Corners were rolled up, busting WR screens, breaking on curls from their quarters coverage and creating ball disruptions, and absolutely snatching the ball out of the air over the middle.

Antwan Cordy is going to have a year at safety if he stays healthy; we all know that. The kid is a baller. Total package playmaker, and the kid isn’t even tall enough to ride the best rides at Disney yet. I love it.

The cornerback competition is going to be great all camp, and I can’t wait to see who emerges as the starters. My vote is Chris Fredrick and Notre Dame transfer Devin M. Butler. The staff seems to favor length and athleticism in its corners based on their recruiting efforts and grad transfers don’t come to sit the bench so I think those guys might get the nod. (though fellow grad transfer Jordan Martin also arrives from Toledo this offseason)

Defensive MVP

My defensive MVP goes to Fredrick. His physical development from last year to this year is second to none, and his presence on the field seemed to be felt immediately. I’m obviously a little biased towards defensive backs, but his technique has improved dramatically and he made plays all game. Some may have gone underappreciated. The spring is about development and capitalizing on opportunity, and I don’t think anyone did that more effectively than this guy. Expect a big year from him.

What do you see from this year’s spring showcase and who was your MVP?