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Syracuse football’s defense strengthened by experienced core

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The Orange leaders on defense make those around them that much better.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

When Kendall Coleman made his way to SU in 2016, it didn’t take long for the Syracuse Orange coaching staff to know he was a special player. Dino Babers heard from an assistant that a freshman had earned a 100 grade for effort in one of the team’s early scrimmages (though it would be downgraded later).

“When Kendall Coleman came in, we said we’ll see another freshman like him,” Babers said at ACC Media Day back in July. “I don’t think we have.”

Now a senior, Coleman anchors the defensive unit that is now SU’s greatest strength after a few seasons where it was a liability. It starts on the defensive line, where Coleman and teammate Alton Robinson combine to form arguably the best outside duo in the ACC.

“You gotta pick your poison with that front,” Babers said after Syracuse’s win against Liberty in which the defense tallied eight sacks without even really blitzing. Notably, the Flames were 21st in the country in terms of sack rate last year, allowing Stephen Calvert to get taken down in the backfield on just 4% of dropbacks.

Two of Saturday’s sacks came on the inside from nose tackle Josh Black, who saw the opportunities that were opening up for him in part due to his fellow defensive linemen on the edge.

“With Kendall and Alton coming from the outside, they force the quarterback to step up in the pocket,” Black said. “Teams don’t know who to prioritize.” That was clear against Liberty, where Robinson may have been held to 0.5 sacks, but Black and Coleman tallied two apiece.

North Carolina State v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The experience extends well beyond the line, as the Orange defense has a total of seven senior starters, plus a ton of veteran experience behind them as well.

“This defense is full of leadership at all different positions,” Coleman said. “Any game, anyone can step up and be that guy.” Syracuse made that evident against Liberty — something that could pay off against Maryland and future opponents in 2019 as well. Seven different Orange players collected at least half of a sack against the Flames. Four broke up passes. And 23 players had at least a tackle.

More than anything, though, Coleman says the key to success goes beyond what people can see with the naked eye. “There’s a mentality and there’s a culture,” Coleman added. “It comes with all the things the seniors have been through to get to this point.”

While this senior group obviously got to enjoy success with last year’s surprising 10-3 record, the scars from those earlier seasons haven’t necessarily faded. As we’re all well aware, Syracuse preceded last year’s achievement with three straight seasons of finishing 4-8. That experience is probably critical to keeping SU from sliding back to that low point in the near future, however.