clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Syracuse football 2018 report card: Defensive backs

Some steps in the right direction (and one big surprise).

NCAA Football: Louisville at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange football program finished 10-3 in 2018 — the first time SU’s done as much since 2001. So while these postseason reviews typically end up skewing toward what went wrong, hopefully this is the first of many seasons in a row where we get to happily recap what went very right.

Despite winning 10 games, though, it’s not as if things were perfect. These “report cards” serve as an assessment of both good and bad. Looking back at the past season, we’re going position by position, to see what worked, what didn’t and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or in rare cases, lack thereof). Hopefully you enjoy. And why wouldn’t you? We have a top-25 team to root for again.

We last talked linebackers. Next:

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

Defensive backs

Syracuse’s pass defense has been in rough shape for quite a few years now, and in game one of 2018, it seemed like more of the same. Western Michigan complied 379 yards on just 19 completions. Big plays were the rule, and the Orange secondary had no answer for the deep ball.

That wasn’t what we saw for much of the rest of the season, however. Just two more opponents (North Carolina, NC State) topped the 300-yard mark. Quite a few opponents hovered around 50 percent completions or worse.

The change started with the improved pass-rush, which allowed the secondary to be more opportunistic and aggressive in causing turnovers. As Syracuse’s front four got after opposing quarterbacks more, you saw the DBs gain confidence and improve their ability to cover downfield. SU’s 18 interceptions on the year were tied for fifth-most in the country. Yes, that’s a productive of taking risks. But that ability to flip the field was essential to the team’s success.

While he wasn’t the only player picking off passes for the Orange, freshman safety Andre Cisco was the most prolific at hauling in interceptions. Cisco tied for the FBS lead with seven INTs, collected 60 tackles, broke up a total of 11 passes, and earned All-American honors for his efforts. But what was perhaps more important was his improvement over the course of the season.

Where Cisco bit on fakes and got beat deep early in the season, the tape would show later how quickly he was able to adapt and grow into his role as a starting safety. That wasn’t without some remaining pitfalls here and there, but by year’s end, Cisco was rounding into the sort of elite corner that Syracuse needed.

He wasn’t the only defensive back to improve by leaps and bounds, either. After early struggles, Chris Fredrick also turned in an impressive effort that solidified Orange fan opinions that he’s potentially a top-10 corner in the ACC. While early games showed him out of position here and there, Fredrick actually turned into a lockdown corner by the season’s midway point.

You saw improvement from much of the rest of the secondary, too. Evan Foster rounded into a notable 86-tackle performance by year’s end, and Scoop Bradshaw put in consistent effort and results in each weekend. Ifeatu Melifonwu ended up injured, but in his time as a contributor, he ended up with the second-most pass break-ups on the roster (with six). Antwan Cordy continued his own disruptive play, getting into the backfield (two TFLs), and tallying 27 tackles total.

Trill Williams didn’t make the initial write-up here, but to no fault of his own (blame a lack of sleep and time crunch on my part). But the freshman was a catalyst for big plays, even if in different ways from Cisco. He had 31 tackles, two interceptions and a touchdown off a blocked punt — plus 2.5 tackles for loss. Trill was everywhere and forced more playing time for himself as the year went on.

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

This does paint the sort of picture that everything went pretty well — and it did, to some extent. But the season still left plenty of concerns about the defensive backs and their abilities to make stops (especially when the blitz wasn’t getting after opposing passers):

Syracuse allowed 124 passes of 10 or more yards, which was among the 30 highest figures in the country. Same goes for pass plays of 20 or more yards (48) and pass plays of 40 or more (16). That last rate was just three shy of Missouri’s nation-leading 19. Oklahoma, a deplorable defense as you well know, had 17 (in one additional game).

When we talked about the defensive line, we mentioned they were essential to the team’s resurgence on that side of the ball — and the group very much was. However, the secondary’s ability to create turnovers made the aggressive front’s approach.

The 2019 secondary should see similar results, with the team’s slew of young players ready to jump in and play larger and more dynamic roles. For the first two years of Syracuse’s Tampa-2 defense, it was hard to really nail down what the DBs were supposed to do — or more accurately, what they were able to do in terms of the scheme. In 2018, they figured it out, with some obvious growing pains. SU now brings an extremely experienced group going forward, with game-changing ability and the free reign to exercise it.

Grade: B-