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Syracuse football fall camp report: Turnaround starts with improving defense

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We observe a busy and productive day one of practice for Dino Babers’s squad.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Last season the Syracuse Orange finished 127th in total defense and 123rd in opponent points per game out of 129 total FBS football programs. According to Head Coach Dino Babers, if the Orange want to improve on their 4-8 record from last year the defense must make significant improvements in both pressure and coverage schemes.

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Babers says this year’s defense will emphasize increasing pressure on quarterbacks.

"With the quarterbacks who aren't seasoned, you have to be able to test them," Babers said.

I’m all for this.

In the spring, the defense showed new blitz packages featuring both safety and linebacker pressure. Effective pressure schemes help stuff the run and get the ball out quicker. Last April, the defense capitalized with three interceptions and several ball disruptions as a result of a new emphasis to get after the quarterback.

This is great news schematically for the Orange.

Last year’s defense had no teeth. Quarterbacks had all day, receivers had all the space they wanted and D-Lineman were block magnets.

New blitz packages will be a welcome wrinkle to a struggling ‘Cuse defense. But in a Tampa-2 scheme, your defense will live or die based on the play of your four down lineman. The less you have to rely on a blitz or some sort of extra man for pressure, the better your defense.

Last year’s effort was disappointing among the D-Line. A year of development and hopefully more time in the system will lead to more production.

Senior captain, Zaire Franklin said this year’s group has more chemistry heading into fall camp.

“Guys are way more comfortable with the system, the coaches. We know what’s expected of us and the program.”

This is encouraging. Much of last season, lineman were out of their gaps, linebackers were getting reached by opposing offensive linemen and members of the secondary regularly misplayed an assignment.

If this year’s unit can stay healthy, veteran leadership and an emphasis on pressure may lead to more productivity from the Orange defense.

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The next step will be shoring up the secondary

Syracuse’s pass defense was among the ACC’s worst last season, ranking at the bottom of the conference in both opponent yards per pass and opponent passing yards per game -- a product of surrendering too many big plays while not making enough of its own. Losing starting CB Corey Winfield last season via transfer doesn’t help.

Giving up deep balls in cover-four, a zone, is unacceptable. Giving up 76 points in one football game is problematic, to say the least.

BUT, despite last year’s woes, there’s a lot to like about this year’s secondary and changes have been made.

Scoop Bradshaw and Christopher Fredericks lined up as the starting corners Sunday afternoon. Evan Foster will open camp as the starting boundary safety and Antwan Cordy has returned to lead the secondary from his field safety position.

The coaching staff is clearly looking for more production from this group. The starting lineup for fall camp is a mixed bag of skillsets and surprising names with the 1’s.

Bradshaw has instincts and quickness cover-2 corners need to jump short routes and react to the run. Fredericks provides rangy length, shrinking coverage gaps in cover-2 schemes. Cordy will be the usual playmaker he is and Foster has a downhill, thumping safety presence this defense will need to patrol the middle.

As listed for now, this unit will also boast the most (experienced) depth it’s had in years. Juwan Dowels returns from a torn ACL and this year’s second team has a combined 35 starts.

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This season will be an uphill battle for the Orange. Normally, teams focus on both sides of the ball during a rebuilding phase, but the Orange decided to make their defense a top priority this offseason. Only time will tell if that strategy will translate into more wins.