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Syracuse 2019 spring football preview: Defensive backs

At times surprising in 2018, the secondary now has something to build upon going forward.

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

The Syracuse Orange football program added 21 players in the class of 2019, (plus a grad transfer in Ryan Alexander). With that, we officially turned the page to next season. Spring practice started back on March 3 and the spring game is coming up soon on April 13. As spring ball is in full swing, we’re wrapping up previewing each position group on the roster.

Last week, we looked at the linebackers hitting reset for the second straight year, and how that may affect the defense. Next:

Syracuse defensive backs look to build on breakout 2018

Who’s gone?

Potentially Antwan Cordy, but that hasn’t been confirmed as of yet. The safety/nickel corner is eligible for a sixth year, but also didn’t play in the last few games this past season. Playing in 10 games last year, he had 27 tackles — with two going for loss (one sack), plus three pass break-ups and a forced fumble.

Tyrone Perkins is gone too, as is walk-on Sean Onwualu.

Who’s on campus?

Everyone else, as Syracuse’s years of loading up on the secondary in recruiting classes now brings back its deepest group in years.

Andre Cisco and Evan Foster should hold down the safety positions again, and the former will look to improve upon his All-American freshman performance in 2018. Starting corners Christopher Fredrick and Scoop Bradshaw also return, though the latter has missed some time in spring while recovering from injury.

Among the experienced defensive backs that will also be plenty involved in spring ball: Corners Carl Jones, Ifeatu Melinfonwu, Trill Williams, DuWayne Johnson and Allen Stritzinger. Among the safeties, Cam Jonas, Devon Clarke and Eric Coley are also back. True freshman cornerback Adrian Cole was an early signee and has been on campus since January. Walk-ons John Sweetwood, Kyle Strickland, Kevin Nusdeo and AJ Calabro also return.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s arriving this summer?

Three more defensive backs, including four-star safety Cornelius Nunn, and three-star DBs Aman Greenwood and Garrett Williams. Nunn is potentially good enough to challenge for snaps or at least get on the two-deep depth chart in year one on campus.

Starting the season fast

We got into this a little with the linebackers last week, but it was a rough start for the Syracuse secondary too in 2018 when it came to making stops. They were great at forcing turnovers, mind you (18 interceptions were fifth-best in the country). But early opponents exhibited zero trouble completing deep passes at an accurate clip. Western Michigan had 379 yards through the air against Syracuse on just 19 completions. Both Wagner and UConn completed over 50 percent of passes (UConn had 65.5 percent) against SU, with both averaging 7.5 yards per attempt.

Some of those numbers never really improved over the course of the season, though the young group did adjust to prevent deep balls where possible, while still taking risks. You saw that change the most in Cisco and Fredrick — two guys that began the season looking rough in one-on-one coverage, but by the end were the Orange’s top two pass defenders.

Playing against teams that can throw the ball early (Liberty and Clemson were both top-40 in passing yards per game last year), there will be bigger tests in September than what we saw in 2018. However, the pieces are already experienced and in place this time around, which should hopefully prevent the same sort of struggles.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Boston College Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Getting Trill as much work as possible

Though Cisco got all of the headlines and the gaudy stat sheet as well, Trill Williams was also a force while playing nickel corner when the team was in a 4-2-5 alignment (as well as some other spot corner duty here and there). In 12 games last year, the freshman had two interceptions, 31 tackles, two INTs, 2.5 TFLs and a QB hurry, plus a touchdown via recovered block punt. He was a versatile force on both defense and special teams, and SU will want that to continue this season.

It doesn’t get any easier to plug him in as a starter this year, however, if we end up seeing a lot more 4-3 than 4-2-5. All four starters are back in the secondary, and some of the reserves (Ifeatu Melifonwu, Cam Jonas, Devon Clarke, Carl Jones) are also going to push for time along with Trill. Add in the fact that we still don’t know about Cordy’s presence and it’s a pretty crowded secondary.

Trill will get the nod in the 4-2-5, though, and based on the state of the linebackers, we could end up seeing more of that than we even did last year. When he’s not on defense, he could be a very interesting factor in special teams (something we’ll discuss a bit more next week).

How do we get all of these players on the field?

As mentioned above, Trill’s a big concern in terms of getting him out there as much as possible. But there are SO many defensive backs that need to see the field. Without some sort of rotation, we could see a lot of talent on the sidelines for extended periods.

Last year, short-term injuries, tempo and blowouts led to a lot of younger players seeing the field. Ideally, you can get the top four corners (Fredrick, Bradshaw, Melifonwu, Williams) on the field regularly to keep legs fresh, but the rest are probably a year away from being regular contributors. Safety’s similar locked in with Cisco, Foster and Clarke, plus some combination of Jonas, Coley and potentially Nunn also jumping in. Brian Ward’s won some room to get creative, so let’s see how he gets everyone involved without disrupting on-field chemistry.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Can this group improve?

It’s the key question that dictates a lot for this defense. With an inexperienced linebacker corps., there’s a bigger onus on SU’s secondary to make stops both in the flat and downfield. Last year, the DBs showed themselves capable of defending over the middle at times, and did some great work in one-on-one situations downfield along the sideline (Fredrick in particular excelled there). But the flat was usually a pretty open area of the field as the team would try to cheat back a bit to prevent big plays. That worked to some extent, though the Orange were still near the bottom of the country in terms of stopping those big gains through the air.

Expectations are going to be high once again for Cisco, and I’m most excited to see how his game evolves as opposing teams likely try to avoid throwing his way (he did have seven picks last year, after all). Fredrick also spent the second half of last year turning into a really great coverage man, and could potentially wind up with All-ACC honors. So success potentially gets defined by the others — particularly Bradshaw, who may sense Melifonwu (already a pretty solid cover man himself) waiting in the wings.

This group could certainly improve in the margins. But it’s going to be a challenge to be THAT much better than what we saw for much of the latter half of the season when everyone was healthy.