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Syracuse 2017 spring football preview: Defensive backs

Will injuries derail this group yet again?

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

We’ve flipped the calendar to 2017 for Syracuse Orange football. That starts with spring practice, which began on March 21, and goes through April 22.

As spring football gets going, we’re digging into each position group to preview what might happen in the coming months, and how that sets up the fall’s upcoming season.

Today's topic:

Secondary’s improvement will be key to whether defense works (or not)

Who’s on campus?

Lots of players from last year. There are actually more defensive backs than any other position on the roster right now.

Returning cornerbacks: Scoop Bradshaw, Juwan Dowels, Chris Fredrick, Carl Jones, Cordell Hudson

Returning safeties: Devon Clarke, Antwan Cordy, Daivon Ellison, Evan Foster, Rodney Wiliams, Kielan Whitner

Along with those players, Devin M. Butler has arrived as a transfer from Notre Dame, while walk-ons Sean Onuwalu and Kyle Strickland are also participating in spring ball.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Even more defensive backs. Eric Coley, Ifeatu Melifonwu and Mykelti Williams are all true freshmen for 2017, and linebacker Kadeem Trotter could potentially move to safety. Additionally, Toledo grad transfer Jordan Martin also joins the fold.

The freshmen are all depth additions, while Martin will obviously push for playing time as an experienced college corner in his final season. Williams, who’s a JUCO signee, could also challenge for playing time in year one.

What type of impact will the outgoing transfers have?

Syracuse lost just one defensive back to graduation, but two to transfer. Corey Winfield was arguably the team’s best cornerback last year, and he’ll be suiting up for West Virginia this fall. Chauncey Scissum has yet to announce his landing spot, but has FBS talent at safety.

Of the two, losing Winfield’s the biggest blow. He’d been around awhile, clearly, but more than that, was one of the better coverage DBs we had, even if he wasn’t one to necessarily create turnovers. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he also had some size to him that most of the current corners don’t possess. Winfield’s abilities to adapt to the new system would’ve helped in year two. But at least injuries elsewhere gave the youth on the roster plenty of time on the field.

NCAA Football: Stony Brook at Toledo Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Are the two grad transfers your starting cornerbacks?

There are no guarantees there, but you’d have to think that’s why they’re here. For both Martin and Butler, their careers have been derailed a bit by injuries (and for Butler, an additional off-the-field incident). But as long as both are healthy, they stand to see the field quite a bit.

The advantage both have, compared to the corners already on the roster, is the style of play they’re used to. Last year, many of the existing corners had to adjust their playing style from aggressive ball-hawking and blitzing to the Tampa-2 coverage role. That won’t be the case for Martin or Butler, who both played in more traditional coverage-focused defenses.

Butler certainly has the leg up toward a starting spot so far, given that he’s on campus. We’ll have to wait and see on Martin once he arrives this summer.

How much could Antwan Cordy’s and Juwan Dowels’s respective returns impact this defense?

Cordy’s the best defensive back on the team at least, and could also be one of the team’s top two or three defensive players overall. His return to the field is no small addition -- it’s basically like getting another transfer in the door compared to last year’s squad.

With Cordy and Dowels, the secondary may not have looked great last season, but the Louisville game (in particular) was also in the early going, while they were still adjusting to the new scheme. Cordy’s ability to get after the ball at safety will be a huge improvement for this team. Dowels is a quality coverage guy at corner, and could also be the sort of gamechanger they’re looking for with regard to creating turnovers there.

In short, both coming back is a huge help, and mitigates a lot of what’s lost from Winfield and Scissum’s respective transfers — if not more.

How deep is this safety rotation?

Maybe the deepest I’ve seen in a decade or so (maybe more). Six players with real talent and game experience are all available to plug in and keep fresh legs out there. That should conceivably help keep opposing offenses in front of them this year, though that also means they all need to stay healthy. Speaking of...

Can this group stay healthy?

That’s really the biggest question for Syracuse’s secondary this spring, as the injury bug’s still lingering. Rodney Williams was limited today, according to Stephen Bailey. Ellison, Hudson and Dowels have also missed much if not all of spring practice themselves this year. It’s a continuation of a common theme for the Orange defensive backs, who’ve been banged up more often than not for several seasons in a row.

As mentioned, Dowels and Cordy are back, and that’s a positive (though Dowels is still not ALL the way back just yet). Despite the depth, the team can’t really afford to be without half of its secondary — as it was for parts of 2016. Last year, those injuries led to playing time for a lot of the contributors on this season’s team. As those players step up, we’d like to avoid having to throw true freshmen into action now if we can avoid. That’s one of the other reasons Babers brought in grad transfers, as well as a JUCO guy like Mykelti Williams.


Any other questions or thoughts about the Syracuse’s defensive backs for 2017? Share below.