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Syracuse football 2019 season report card: Defensive backs

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Typically the toughest group to grade under Babers — and this year was no different.

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

After a highly disappointing 5-7 season, there are probably a lot of you that would rather not look back at 2019 for the Syracuse Orange football team. But before we move forward into what we hope is a much better 2020, it’s worth taking stock of what’s occurred.

Since last week, we’ve been going position by position recapping SU’s year to see what worked, what didn’t, and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or in many cases, a lack thereof). On Tuesday, we talked about a green linebacker group that... played like they were a green linebacker group. Today, we wrap up the defensive side of the ball with the:

Secondary

The most oft-criticized position group during Dino Babers’s tenure has undoubtedly been the defensive backs. In the early days, SU tried to fit players into a scheme they weren’t recruited to. Later on, the tempo and an emphasis on turnovers was still prone to giving up a lot of yards and a lot of big plays.

A capable pass rush and strong play from the front seven helped alleviate some of the issues in 2018, but without the same high level of success in front of them this fall, we saw the DBs backslide. Opposing QBs had more time to throw in 2019, which exposed issues that went brushed over for much of last year. Making matters worse, the group’s two best players — Andre Cisco and Ifeatu Melifonwu — were only at full health for a portion of the season.

That should paint a rough picture, and accurately so, to some extent. Syracuse allowed 262.5 yards per game, which was 110th overall. They allowed 118 passing plays of 10 yards or more (95th), 48 of 20 or more (112th), and 21 passing plays of 30 or more yards (93rd). SU was also one of just five programs in the country to allow nine or more passing plays that went for at least 50 yards.

And yet... the Orange were 13th in the country in opposing completion percentage (53.4) despite facing a very high 425 passing attempts. They were also firmly middle of the road in terms of yards-per-attempt (7.4) allowed, and were top-20 in interceptions for the second consecutive season. As we were saying: Big plays and a lot of yards, yes. But at their best, Syracuse’s secondary also made teams work for completions and was able to create turnovers — just as they were last season.

Syracuse v Maryland Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

With regard to the last two points, Melifonwu and Cisco were key. The former was already the team’s best cover man coming into the season, and just further solidified that fact when he was on the field in 2019. Despite missing three games (and not being 100% healthy in others), he still led the team in passes broken up with eight. The biggest of those was a pick in the end zone vs. Wake Forest that wound up contributing to that game going to overtime (where SU eventually won).

Though Cisco wasn’t always perfect, he still displayed a ball-hawking ability that’s unrivaled at the FBS level right now. Like Iffy, Cisco played in just nine games. And similarly, he wasn’t 100% healthy in all of those either. Yet he still collected five picks, to up his career total to an impressive 12 through two seasons. And he could’ve had more, too.

Even when those two were on the field, though, there were consistency issues for this group. After a strong junior campaign, Christopher Fredrick took some steps back but also seemed to improve following Brian Ward’s departure. Evan Foster wound up third on the team in tackles, but was also attacked up top in the process — especially when Cisco wasn’t on the field.

The 4-2-5 alignment was utilized to questionable success all year, but perhaps not due to a problem with the scheme. Rather, SU didn’t necessarily have the personnel for it. When Antwan Cordy was utilized as a corner (nickel or otherwise), opponents exploited size mismatches against him. With Trill Williams out there, you were giving up a bit in terms of coverage, but gaining some big-play ability (case in point: the final play of the 2019 season). Allen Stritzinger and Eric Coley were utilized quite a bit, but could both need additional time to develop — though Coley did collect 48 stops on the year, for his part.

Also interesting were the defensive backs who did not really see the field: Cam Jonas, Neil Nunn, DuWayne Johnson, Garrett Williams and Aman Greenwood. You’d figure at least a handful are getting a lot more snaps in 2020 (which then makes you wonder why they weren’t tossed in while taking advantage of the redshirt rules late in the year).

No matter what the defensive coordinator change yields, it’s likely that a lot of the same issues for this group remain, especially the ones that are a product of tempo and/or trying to convert on big plays. But despite that, this season did show that the bones are there for a bounceback — provided the right DC comes in and takes the reins.

Grade: C