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Syracuse football 2018 position preview: Defensive backs

The Orange add another DB spot to fix recent secondary issues (and also adjust to linebacker inexperience).

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

We’re just weeks away from the Syracuse Orange football season, so position previews are almost complete.

Leading up to the 2018 kickoff, we’re profiling one group and every player suiting up at that position this fall. Last week, we chatted about SU’s inexperienced linebackers learning on the job. This time, we discuss:

Defensive backs

The secondary was a mess long before Dino Babers arrived, but the concerns have intensified since as Syracuse’s pass defense has struggled mightily to stop the pass all that well. After finishing 118th in passing yards allowed per game (276.1) in 2016, the Orange made progress last year (247.3 per) — but that was largely influenced by a stronger effort at the front end of the schedule.

This year things will certainly look different as linebacker questions switch SU to a 4-2-5, meaning there’s an extra defensive back on the field at all times. Though previous results with this group have been hot and cold, a young influx of talent built for the Tampa-2 and Brian Ward’s style of play could mean progress here in year three. It’s intriguing, at the very least. And really, we couldn’t just go back to doing the same thing as 2017 given the late collapse in part engineered by struggles at the back of the defense.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Nickel corners

Antwan Cordy, (Redshirt) Senior

We haven’t seen much of Cordy these past two seasons, as he’s missed over 21 games in that stretch. But last he was on the field, “Giant” managed 68 tackles, 12 TFLs and two picks in Scott Shafer’s old scheme. That talent doesn’t just vanish, and Julian Whigham believes Cordy’s linebacker-like tendencies could be a major asset at the nickel spot this year. The shift opens him up for more play-making opportunities closer to the line. Big question will be health, though.

Allen Stritzinger, Sophomore

Stritzinger could’ve played either way coming out of high school, and while the former track star came to SU as a running back, then made the switch to defense this offseason. He’s currently listed as the second-string nickel back on the depth chart. He’ll likely have some steep competition from the class of 2018, however.

DuWayne Johnson, (Redshirt) Junior

Slotting “The Rock” in at nickel back to start, if only because I think it’s his best option to see the field early. And with only two years of eligibility left, you’d think Syracuse will find any way they can to work the former Virignia Tech signee into the rotation. He was clearly a fit for the Hokies’ trademark big-play tendencies in the secondary. This could be a good spot to put those to use for SU.

Sean Onwualu, (Redshirt) Junior

Onwualu hasn’t amassed numbers with Syracuse just yet, but in college, he was a similar type of player to what Cordy’s exhibited: a speedy disruptor on the outside who can be used in blitz packages and cause turnovers. He’s likely playing special teams this year, but nickel’s a good group to work with in the meantime.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerbacks

Christopher Fredrick, (Redshirt) Junior

Quietly, Frederick has become one of Syracuse’s best defenders while starting the last 18 games at cornerback. When the Orange had safety help last year, Chris was effective and looked much improved as one of the better corners in college football some weeks. Without Jordan Martin, however, results were more questionable. No matter what’s happening at the back of the secondary this year, though, he’s a crucial part of this group’s improvement.

Scoop Bradshaw, Junior

Scoop started 11 of 12 games last year, and was similarly affected by Martin’s injury as Fredrick was — though he also suffered from a mid-season injury that could’ve potentially slowed him down as well. Still, he had 21 tackles, 5.5 TFLs and six pass break-ups on the year. There’s reason to believe he’d be able to exceed those numbers with a renewed focus on flipping the field and big plays.

Carl Jones, Junior

Jones will back up Bradshaw at corner this year, and could finally work himself into the defensive rotation after playing mostly special teams up to now. He does possess some great speed, which obviously comes in handy on this team, and good hands from his time as a high school wideout, too.

Ifeatu Melifonwu, (Redshirt) Freshman

Melifonwu’s one of the most exciting young players on the roster — and not just because his brother (Obi, formerly of UConn) is already in the NFL. Ifeatu’s already pretty big at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, and should round into an impressive corner for the Orange, and maybe even one of the team’s top tacklers. For now, he’ll be learning under Fredrick.

Trill Williams, Freshman

Like Melifonwu, Trill’s pretty big at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, but he just got to campus and there are experienced options in front of him. Still, he’s already on the two-deep despite only arriving this summer and Julian thinks he’s already covering really well for a freshman. That’s new for us, but what you expect from a four-star recruit. He could see time this year.

Kyle Strickland, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Strickland has been working primarily with the special teams group these past couple years (had three stops there last year), and likely will again this season. Similar to several of the other DBs on the team, he’s a former wideout. That’s unlikely to get put to use much in coverage this year, though maybe on the hands team?

John Sweetwood, Freshman

Sweetwood’s part of the recent group of walk-on arrivals, and is a probable redshirt this season especially weighing in at just 170 pounds right now. A full year in a college weight room should help that a bit.

Safeties

Evan Foster, Junior

Foster started all 12 games at strong safety last year, and his stat line tells you a lot about this team’s struggles defending deep: 64 tackles on the year, which were third-most on the entire team. He hasn’t necessarily done enough to become entrenched as a starter, though there’s definitely talent there.

Andre Cisco, Freshman

Having a freshman listed as a starter at free safety probably tells you a lot about the Orange secondary... but could also tell you a lot about the sort of player Cisco is. Julian believes Cisco holds down the job, in part because Babers has had so much good to say about him. It may not be perfect having a true frosh out there. Still, there’s a chance he improves significantly as the season wears on.

Devon Clarke, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Clarke’s redemption tour begins in earnest, and if anyone can unseat Cisco as a starter at the FS spot, it’s him. He has size already (6-foot-2 and 200 pounds), and a good deal of speed. Despite not playing in a game yet for Syracuse, he has been on campus for two years now, so “should” know the system better than Cisco.

Eric Coley, (Redshirt) Freshman

As mentioned, free safety could be a bit up in the air if Coley can truly press Foster. Coley played both ways in high school and spent more time at corner than safety — which may have helped him develop into a quality one-on-one cover man. He’s nowhere near as big as Foster (183 pounds vs. 223), but if he can create turnovers, that won’t matter much.

Cam Jonas, Freshman

A torn ACL his senior season could’ve shown lingering effects, but the offseason hasn’t revealed as much. Like Coley, Jonas could really push Foster should he slip up. If he doesn’t earn the job, you could see Jonas redshirt just to give him another season to learn the system and then jump back into a competition next year. He probably has the skill level to play now, though.

Tyrone Perkins, Senior

Three years playing sparingly as a running back led to a spring switch to safety, though he’s already moved off the two-deep since. Perkins will be a core part of the special teams group at the very least. Injuries would be his opening in the secondary, however.

Kevin Nusdeo, (Redshirt) Freshman

Nusdeo is a walk-on, but safety isn’t the worst position to play in that case given the uncertainty around the current depth chart. He’s unlikely to break past the scholarship players in front of him, though he could still get time on special teams to see some exposure to real game play.

AJ Calabro, Freshman

Calabro’s on the smaller end at just 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, though that doesn’t prevent playing time at all (ask Cordy). As a walk-on, he’s a probable redshirt for now, and could put on some weight over the course of the next 12 months. In high school, he did show a nose for the ball, which is a skill we could use more of.

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

As you’ll notice, the corner and nickel roles seem well-established, which is great. But there are some definite concerns for the Orange at safety. Foster has experience, but could be challenged. Cisco’s brand new to college ball. There’s a very real way that we could see a couple freshmen at the back of this defense, even without injuries.

After a couple years of fitting round pegs into square holes though, this does finally seem like a collection of players that fit what they’re doing on this team. So even without a lot of veterans in this secondary, fitting better into the Tampa-2 could end up yielding better results. Health, as always, will dictate a lot of what happens here and how capable Syracuse is when it comes to actually stopping deep passes (unlike recent seasons).

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