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Syracuse 2018 spring football preview: Defensive backs

The pass defense pretty much has to improve, no?

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The 2018 Syracuse Orange football season unofficially started last month with spring practice. Those run through next Friday, April 13, when SU hosts its spring game in the evening (which will also be broadcast on ACC Network Extra).

Syracuse already gave us an early look at depth charts on both sides of the ball for 2018. Since then, we’ve been digging into each position group to preview what could happen this spring and how that prepares SU for this fall. If you missed last week’s topic, here’s our look at the refurbished Orange linebacker corps.

Today’s topic:

Can the Syracuse pass defense finally take steps forward?

Who’s on campus?

Probably best to mention who isn’t first: Rodney Williams, Cordell Hudson, Juwan Dowels and Daivon Ellison have all transferred, removing a significant amount of the experienced depth in the secondary. Previous grad transfers Devin M. Butler and Jordan Martin are also gone. Still, there’s plenty of known entities left on the roster.

Last year’s starters at cornerback -- Scoop Bradshaw and Christopher Fredrick — are back, as is Antwan Cordy, who’s missed much of the last two seasons with injuries. Cordy was slated to potentially play wide receiver this year, however, he was switched back to safety in the middle of spring practice.

Evan Foster, Carl Jones and Devon Clarke are also back, and are the only other returning non-freshmen defensive backs. This position group has also added a few offensive expats, however, in Tyrone Perkins (now a safety) and Allen Stritzinger (cornerback).

Redshirt freshmen Eric Coley and Ifeatu Melifonwu will have opportunities for significant playing time this year. The same will likely go for true freshmen Cam Jonas and Andre Cisco, who both arrived in January for spring ball.

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

Who’s arriving this summer?

Trill Williams takes his rightful place atop the Orange’s “all-name team” when he steps on campus this summer. The four-star athlete was one of the best players in the 2018 SU class, and will be slotting in at cornerback on the depth chart.

First and foremost: Who’s starting?

Bradshaw and Fredrick weren’t perfect last season, but the young players acquitted themselves well for the early parts of the year and would likely slot back into those roles for 2018. Well neither player is that big, they’re both quick and can cover a lot of ground. They’re obviously even better when they have a little more safety help over the top (something that Jordan Martin really provided while he was healthy).

Cordy will resume his spot at free safety, which he barely got to play last year after getting injured in game one. Evan Foster figures to be the starting strong safety again after serving in that role for all 12 games in 2017 and leading the secondary in tackles with 64.

What the hell happened last year?

Injuries, plus a lack of scheme fit -- something that sort of fixed itself over the offseason, even if that means a depth chart that lacks the experience it once did.

Early in the year, the secondary bent but rarely broke. They allowed high completion percentages through the first half of the year (MTSU, LSU, Pitt, Clemson and NC State all hit 60 percent or higher), but yardage never got higher than the 277 Central Michigan put up while trying to come back from a big deficit.

Then everything took a nose dive over the final five games. Completion percentages stayed high, and yardage also jumped. Three of the final five opponents (Miami, Wake Forest, Louisville) topped 300 yards in the game and had eight or more yards per attempt. With the back side of the secondary hurt, over the top help was scarce, allowing for big plays. Teams were also able to find receivers out in the flat to take advantage of a linebacker group not necessarily geared toward pass coverage. All of that could potentially be rectified to some extent in 2018.

Which freshmen get in on the action?

Potentially all of them. As mentioned, scheme fit is a lingering issue for this program and the Tampa-2, and no one has shown themselves to be irreplaceable just yet. Melifonwu came in as a great cover guy, which is why he’s been getting reps at cornerback this spring. Jonas and Cisco can play centerfield and could potentially test Foster opposite Cordy.

Trill Williams could have potentially made a play for one of the cornerback roles had he arrived for spring ball. Instead, he may be relegated to nickel duty depending on how quickly he picks up the defense. Coley has speed, but we’ll see on his ability to cover. Anyone that’s not playing regularly on defense could easily find themselves on special teams, just to get the reps.

Will Cordy play both ways?

It seems strange to consider playing an undersized safety who’s been injured each of the last two seasons on both sides of the ball, but the option’s still out there for the redshirt senior. Dino Babers had originally looked at him on offense to try and keep him healthier. The change back could have had two different motivators: a) the safety position can’t be without him, and/or b) the young receivers have come along quicker than Babers had planned. One of those is better than the other, obviously. Don’t be shocked if Cordy lines up at wideout as an interesting wrinkle to the offense once in awhile.

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What’s considered improvement?

If Syracuse can cut down on big plays -- a constant struggle since at least 2012 -- that’s one step in the right direction. Reducing the sky-high yards-per-attempt and opposing completion percentage numbers are too.

Due to the tempo of the Orange offense, this secondary is going to face more plays, and give up more yards by design. They’ll need to keep per-play metrics down, however, to make sure that tempo doesn’t force the offense to score 50 per game (though if the offense wants to, be my guest).

Turnovers have also been at a premium in the Tampa-2, a scheme based on quality coverage versus big plays. That doesn’t mean SU can’t flip the field -- and really, it would behoove them to do so as much as possible. When executed successfully, SU’s tempo can be crippling to opponents. The more chances they have to score quickly, the better off we are.