There was a stigma for some time in baseball that pitchers needed to have wins on their record in order to be considered great pitchers, and to be considered for the Cy Young Award. Pitchers like Jacob DeGrom and Blake Snell fell victim to this for a small period of time, before fans and writers started to realize the talent they had despite middle-of-the-road W-L records.
While victory is the ultimate goal in sports, a win doesn’t tell the whole story of an individual’s talent.
A Syracuse Orange duo faces that similar stigma this season. Even though the Orange are headed for a losing season, there are still individuals who are standing out for their play. In particular, cornerbacks Ifeatu Melifonwu and Garrett Williams are playing at an incredibly high level that deserves more national attention.
To Syracuse fans, the production of both cornerbacks is nothing new. Melifonwu has impressed ever since his freshman year and is the highest graded Orange defender in 2020 by Pro Football Focus with a 76.1. He received the third-highest grades among defensive backs during his 2018 season and got the nod as the highest graded secondary player in 2019.
Williams has received a lot of attention from opposing quarterbacks because 2020 is his first year starting for Syracuse. All he’s done is earn the third highest coverage grade from PFF with a 71.0. Williams only sits behind NFL-bound DB Trill Williams and Melifonwu in that area on the Orange roster. The redshirt freshman only saw game time in 2019 on special teams, which makes his revelation as a stud cornerback even more impressive.
“We (Iffy and Garrett) watch a lot of film together and we do a lot of stuff post-practice,” said Meilfonwu. “He plays to his strengths, I play to my strengths, and we work off each other. If he sees something on film, he’ll tell me about it and vice versa.”
Both cornerbacks have also been tested plenty of times throughout the season. Williams has been targeted a team-high 45 times with opponents looking to take advantage of his youth and inexperience. Melifonwu sits in second with opposing quarterbacks throwing at him 36 times. Neither cornerback has allowed a touchdown this year.
Who are the two corners in the country who've had the most targets without a TD given up?— Syracuse Football (@CuseFootball) October 27, 2020
Both are our guys. pic.twitter.com/5pCU8TjlQg
More often than not, defensive coordinator Tony White has his cornerbacks playing man defense against their matchups. Both cornerbacks have shown an incredible ability to stick to the wide receivers they are tasked with covering and making them uncomfortable. Melifonwu and Williams each have five pass breakups so far this season, a mark that leads the team.
“Those are two individuals that are constantly, after every single practice, working on their skills,” said Dino Babers. “They work on releases, they work on techniques to make themselves better. They’re constantly trying to prepare themselves to be the best that they can possibly be.”
Remember the talent that is missing from the secondary due to injury. All of the current safeties are first-year starters who didn’t expect to enter the 2020 season as starters. And yet, many opposing quarterbacks have failed to show that they can significantly damage Syracuse through the air. A large portion of that damage limitation can be attributed to Melifonwu and Williams.
Just look at Williams’s performance against Clemson, where many fans agree that he had a breakout game. He’s the only player to record a pick-six against Trevor Lawrence. Williams also added a couple of crucial pass break ups that stalled the offensive momentum that the Tigers were trying to build. He was also matched up against Amari Rodgers, who was Clemson’s leading receiver entering the Syracuse game. Williams neutralized his impact on the game when the pair faced off in one-on-one matchups.
If you need any more evidence of what Melifonwu brings to the Syracuse defense, look at the North Carolina game. Both of Sam Howell’s interceptions were caused by Melifonwu’s disruption of the play. The UNC quarterback couldn’t target his favorite deep ball target in Dyami Brown throughout the game, which played a large role in why the Orange only trailed the Tar Heels by a touchdown heading into the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been the same amount of buzz around the Orange cornerbacks when compared to the attention that Andre Cisco and Trill Williams got while in Syracuse uniforms. Yes, the eye-popping interception stats of Cisco and the flashy plays of Williams don’t appear when people look at Melifonwu and Garrett Williams. However, the Orange cornerback duo should still receive more looks from the national media.
Some Orange fans assume that Melifonwu will leave school after this year, and if NFL scouts do their homework correctly, the redshirt junior should have no problem hearing his name called on draft day. But there aren’t as many national stories or highlights surrounding his abilities. As I mentioned above, he doesn’t have the interception numbers or a signature moment that would help his national profile, but his impact on the game has always commanded the respect of opposing quarterbacks.
The same can be said for Williams. National fans only started to notice the North Carolina native after the Lawrence pick-six, but what they haven’t realized is that Williams has been providing the same shutdown service at cornerback throughout the entire year for the Orange. There was worry about who would play the opposite cornerback slot to Melifonwu heading into the season, but Williams has cured any ailing thoughts Syracuse fans had about the position.
With their coverage stats and the impact that both have on the game, it’s hard to make an argument against Melifonwu and Williams for the best cornerback duo in the conference. They probably deserve more discussion to be named the best cornerback duo in the nation. However, it’s easy for the national media to see Syracuse’s 1-6 record and dismiss any person from that team as a star. But that brings me back to DeGrom and Snell.
Over time, fans and media members slowly discovered that both pitchers were extremely talented and it wasn’t their fault that their respective teams were losing all the time. The same can be said for Melifonwu and Williams. Both players don’t usually make the plays that appear on SportsCenter, but their skills and presence on the field have made opposing quarterbacks scared to throw their direction.
Now it’s time for people to ignore the record and see their impact on gridiron.