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Fitting a new formation to Syracuse football’s defense

With a new defensive coordinator coming into town, we may see a bit of a shakeup in how the defense lines up.

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

The past few years have been a bit tumultuous for the Syracuse Orange defense. Recently, SU has played a system of bend-don’t-break type 4-2-5 or “Nickel” defense; that has hedged its bets on giving up plays, but being able to force turnovers or shut down offenses in the short field. This hasn’t particularly put the team in a good position for defensive stability over the course of Dino Babers’s tenure, and statistically looks quite bad (at least in terms of raw numbers).

For overall scoring defense, Syracuse ranked 88th in the country in 2019 — this was down from 64th in the 2018 campaign, but up from the other two Babers led teams, with 2016 being the worst at 120th out of the 128 teams in the FBS. National rank for total defense trends similarly, though slightly worse on all accounts over the last four years. In hindsight, it seems to confirm that getting rid of Brian Ward was the right move and a new system of sorts needs to be put in place.

With the coming change in defensive coordinators, there’s a few options out there as a base for what the Orange will be shifting to in the near future. Historically, your main options are a 4-3 or 3-4 base. Each has it’s pros and cons and puts pressure on different position groups within your defense.

A traditional 4-3 plays a nose tackle as a weak side 1-technique, or shading off the center inside the guard, and another tackle as a 3-technique, between the opposite guard and tackle. This formation naturally shifts the defense into gaps in the offensive line and supplements with linebackers filling the other defined gaps in the line during run plays or blitzes. On the downside, this requires a good bit of quickness and athleticism if you’re looking to run any sort of stunts or twists.

The four down linemen also allow for the linebackers to be a little more protected, as there isn’t as much space they need to take up moving forward. It theoretically should allow the LBs more time to read a cutback or spill. There are plenty of variations on these base formations, including shifting around some of the linebackers, running an over versus under on the defensive line and changing your defensive backfield personnel.

This can also be altered, as Syracuse has in the past two years, into instituting a 4-2-5 Nickel defense, which pulls one of the former linebackers into a hybrid linebacker / third safety role and is usually substituted for a defensive back. With the modern pass heavy game this can make sense, as that extra defensive back is usually a quicker, more athletic player, but you give up some quality against the run.

Wake Forest v Syracuse Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Syracuse currently lines up fairly well in a 4-3 up front, with a healthy McKinley Williams at the nose, likely Josh Black at the 3-technique and Kingsley Jonathan and one of the rising redshirt freshmen or sophomores (let’s say Drew Tuazama for now) at the ends. The combination of size and quickness is there. If the Orange wanted to run an under front, Williams and Black could work fine, or Syracuse could even run Williams as the 3-technique and someone like Chris Elmore as the nose. As Williams is our best interior rusher, it puts him on an island with a guard, which bodes well for Williams.

At the linebacker positions, Mikel Jones — who got a good bit of time at the Will last year — when in a base 4-3, returns. Lee Kpogba at the Mike, which is traditionally your strongest run stopper seems to fit well and then Juan Wallace or someone like a Tyrell Richards at your Sam linebacker.

What this does is force some personnel moves in the defensive backfield. You have a penned in starter at two positions in Ifeatu Melifonwu, probably the best cover corner, and Andre Cisco, who the depth chart comes with his name already printed at free safety, accounted for. Strong safety is likely Eric Coley, who backed up both safety spots last season. The other cornerback spot is tough though, likely it’s Trill Williams, who is one of the best athletes on the team, and you need to get him on the field, but there’s a lot more nickel in Trill than there is corner. There are also some promising youngsters in the backfield, but not a lot of experience outside what is mentioned.

In contrast, if Syracuse decided to move to a 3-4 formation, the emphasis goes from the line to the linebackers and creates a bit more speed and reactionary scheme. In the 3-4, you play a head-up nose tackle, which much of the defense is predicated on. If the NT doesn’t force a double team, the rest of the advantage gained from a 3-4 isn’t nearly as important. With McKinley Williams, you have that nose tackle, but there isn’t much proven depth around him.

In doing so, the defensive ends become more hybrid tackles, playing a 5-technique or even head up on the tackles, and being more run-centric than they would be in the 4-3. Johnathan and Black could man these positions well, or someone like a Caleb Okechukwu, who has a little more bulk than the other edge rushers.

Syracuse v North Carolina State Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In creating more gaps in the defensive front, the four linebackers become a more read-and-react group based around quick decisions and attacking. The weak side linebacker can be played as a flex defensive end / linebacker hybrid, or Leo, in other parlance, creating a perfect role for a Tyrell Richards or someone like a Steve Linton, who are more ‘tweener sized defensive linemen that are athletic enough to play a stand-up DE/LB if need be. Ideally this is the best pure pass rusher on the team and has one goal of getting to the quarterback from his wide starting position.

The other linebackers mentioned to fill in the 4-3 would be able to handle the Mike, Sam and Will positions in a 3-4 as well, with the Will becoming more of an inside linebacker. As such, maybe you see Jones out wide and Wallace / Kpogba on the interior.

With only four secondary positions, this also puts the Orange in the same conundrum you have in the 4-3, or any non Nickel package: Too many players to get on the field in ‘tweener positions. In certain spots, it’s more than possible to play a Nickel out of the 3-4, though it tends to put you in a 3-3 stack in the box leaving you succeptible to the run, or in a 4-2, when you pull the nose tackle, effectively creating a “light” personnel modern 4-2-5 Nickel.

It will be interesting to see what route is chosen, or whether the new system can be a bit of a mix of schemes. No matter what, the squad that Syracuse currently has, can be adapted to whichever system the next defensive coordinator wants to bring in, based on the current roster.