There’s been plenty of hand wringing around the Syracuse Orange football program through six games, and rightfully so. Going into the season, many had top-25 expectations around this team, and yet, we’re 3-3 and could be walking quite the tightrope to bowl eligibility with just six games remaining.
As we look out over that ledge toward what happens next, we’re issuing report cards for the team’s position groups. These are partially based on performance, part on how things look relative to expectations. They’re completely subjective as well.
Before Syracuse even played one down this year, the defensive line was already operating at a disadvantage without McKinley Williams clogging up the middle for opposing teams. And his absence has certainly made a mark as the line’s had a tougher time stopping the run — even if they’re still getting into the backfield plenty.
Syracuse has 43 tackles for loss on the year (35th in the country) and 24.5 belong to linemen. Certain NFL Draft pick Alton Robinson’s been incredibly effective all year, though the numbers don’t necessarily indicate the same impact as we saw the past two seasons, in part because of Williams’s absence. That’s not to say Josh Black and Kenneth Ruff are doing poorly inside; they have four TFLs between them. But neither attracts the same sort of attention as Williams, allowing offenses to put more focus on Robinson and fellow D-end Kendall Coleman. The pass-rushing duo has just five combined sacks so far and offenses appear focused in on stopping both players from creating the sort of havoc we saw in 2018.
The run defense isn’t all on the defensive line, though they do play a large role at making first contact. Teams may be averaging “just” 149 yards per game on the ground vs. Syracuse, however, that number’s deceiving. Liberty (-4 yards) and Holy Cross (18) greatly mess with that average, and shield the fact that the Orange allowed over 200 rushing yards against Clemson and Western Michigan — and over 350 vs. Maryland. SU’s also allowing 4.3 yards per carry, which is 80th in the country. As we’ve seen with our own eyes, opposing teams are gashing SU up the middle.
With the team hitting reset at linebacker this year, the onus was on the line to carry a lot more of the load, and though they’ve performed reasonably well considering Williams’s absence, pressure isn’t necessarily yielding sacks, and opposing passers are getting time to throw. Worse still, teams can run on us (something that wasn’t the case as much in the back half of last season). It all equates to a disappointing start for this group, but one they can also rebound from.
We started getting into this position group above. After Ryan Guthrie and Kielan Whitner put in strong efforts in the back half of 2018, the Orange linebackers and particularly the team’s run defense looked encouraging. This year gave way to a lot of youth and virtually no experienced depth, with Andrew Armstrong having more time on the field than anyone else at the position.
Without McKinley Williams to help clog run lanes, the results have perhaps been predictable. Armstrong and Lakiem Williams have shown themselves able to make some big plays — the two have a combined 12 TFLs and are also the team’s two leading tacklers with 41 and 43 stops, respectively. They’ve displayed some improvement in the way of getting into passing lanes, but have also found it tougher to put a stop to opposing rushing attacks and improve in the same way that last year’s linebackers did over the course of the season in that regard.
One bright spot, when he plays, has been Mikel Jones, who has 15 tackles and two TFLs while being limited in action around when Syracuse is in a 4-3 scheme. The freshman has looked quick and more adept stopping the run, though as a younger player, he’s still coming along a bit. Plus, with SU suffering some key injuries in the secondary, they’ve had to make up for it by playing more Nickel than perhaps they’d like.
As we saw in 2018, this defense is ultimately predicated on what the linebackers can do against both the run and pass. A lot is being asked of this year’s group due to injury elsewhere, and that certainly factors into the performance somewhat. But with the Tampa-2 calling for strong play here regardless, it does mean more’s potentially expected — right or wrong.
It may sound like a broken record, but injuries have been a big part of the inconsistent results from the Orange secondary. That said, the Maryland and Clemson games showed a group that was able to make big plays, but not without taking some bigger risks to do so. Since Andre Cisco and Ifeatu Melifonwu left the field, that’s been magnified to some extent as opposing teams have little problem picking on reserves. Antwan Cordy, in particular, has been a target for passing attacks — not because he’s necessarily a poor defender. But rather, because he’s a safety playing corner and is just 5-foot-8 and it frequently creates mismatches against taller wideouts.
To-date, SU’s giving up nearly 277 passing yards per game (111th in the country), however that number’s deceptive. The Orange’s own offensive tempo is going to provide more opportunities, and Syracuse has simply been susceptible to big plays, which has been the case for years. Looking at things from a per-pass basis, ‘Cuse is actually 10th in opposing completion percentage at 51.7 and 64th in yards per attempt (7.1). Those numbers are more indicative of a group that’s middle of the road at worst, despite being without Melifonwu and Cisco for a good chunk of time.
In part, that’s how the big plays happen — though both players have been part of their fair share when on the field. SU’s allowed 62 pass plays of 10 yards or more (104th in the country), and perhaps more concerning, 13 pass plays of 30 or more yards (111th). One underrated factor for why the secondary’s looked a little rougher this year has been the front seven’s struggles to get to the quarterback quickly. Last season, Syracuse’s blitz rushed passers constantly, forcing split decisions and allowing for bigger risks on the part of the Orange DBs. This year, with more time for plays to develop, it’s forced SU’s secondary to defend more downfield, which has had mixed results at times.
Cisco and Melifonwu’s respective returns have a good chance to improve what we’ve seen so far. And what we’ve seen so far also isn’t as bad as it has seemed at times (looking at you, NC State game where DBs spent the first half not turning around to defend passes).
Special teams gets bundled together for “Special Teams U” and as you’d probably expect, we saved the Orange’s best unit for last. Through six games, Syracuse ranks ninth in special teams SP+, 14th in punting average and 15th in average kickoff yardage. They’ve done well enough in the return game, but also haven’t had a lot of chances with teams kicking away from Sean Riley. Despite offensive struggles, they’ve still done well in the field position game, mainly due to the team’s likely first-half MVP, punter Sterling Hofrichter.
We knew Hof was good coming into the season, but he’s raised his game this year to potentially be the nation’s top punter. averaging 46.03 yards on 37 punts. He’s hit a field goal from over 50 yards out. The redshirt senior’s been nearly flawless on kickoffs and even has two tackles to his name this year.
This isn’t to ignore Andre Szmyt either. The sophomore is being asked to kick fewer field goals, as hoped. Just not for the reasons we’d prefer. He’s 6-of-7 there, with the miss being a deflating ricochet off the uprights vs. NC State last week. Szmyt’s also 18-of-19 on extra points. Far from the near-perfection of 2018. But he’s still largely doing what’s asked of him — and well, too.
Punt and kick coverage have been pretty in line with last year’s numbers. SU’s near the middle of the pack in terms of opposing kick return yardage, but one of the top teams in the country in terms of opposing punt return yards (allowing just 1.71 yards per return). This year’s gunners have looked up to the task, and it’s certainly helped (along with Hofricther) make things a little easier for the defense.
Have some disagreements with the above? Have at it in the comments.