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Syracuse football 2020 season report card: Defensive backs

Hey, we saved the best for last (ish, since special teams go up on Thursday)

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NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Because we don’t know how to leave well enough alone, we’ve been recapping the entire 2020 Syracuse Orange football season with our TNIAAM report cards.

On Monday, we started look at the defense, with evaluations of the line and linebackers. Today, we wrap up this side of the ball with SU’s top unit:

Defensive Backs

Syracuse’s switch to a 3-3-5 scheme for 2020 played directly to the team’s strengths — a group of veteran, ball-hawking defensive backs who would get the opportunity to showcase their talents and guide the team’s aggressive style. Things started off that way, of course. But injuries took their toll... on the depth chart, without really harming the on-field product much.

That’s no knock on the guys that wound up missing most of the year. Trill Williams and Andre Cisco were still two of the top talents on any of Dino Babers’s roster and the presence of both these past few years was a huge positive for SU. However, the team did have a ton of depth despite the youth across the roster and they stepped up admirably, and in a way that kept Syracuse competitive as this dreadful season continued.

From a Pro Football Focus grade perspective, it’s very apparent that the defense’s success was dictated by the secondary. Cornerbacks Ifeatu Melifonwu (78.8) and Garrett Williams (75.3) were two of the team’s top three overall defenders all year. And when adding in Trill, Cisco and newcomer Ben LaBrosse, that’s five of the top 10 defenders (grade-wise) coming from the secondary.

Syracuse v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Melifonwu, Trill and Garrett Williams were the top three players on the team in pass coverage, but their games weren’t limited to coverage, either. Garrett and Melifonwu both graded out well in pass-rushing situations (each above 72) and Garrett was the second-best run defender on the team with a 74.2. Even outside of SU’s program, Garrett and Melifonwu were noteworthy. They were both top-35 corners by defensive grades in the whole country, while Melifonwu was second-team All-ACC by Pro Football Focus. Trill was also honorable mention for flex defenders despite only playing about half of a season.

As a group, Syracuse’s secondary seemed to move away from the same sort of big plays we’re used to as they year wore on, and instead showed themselves to be better in coverage. SU had just 13 picks on the year (still ninth in the country), but only eight of those were from the DBs. Meanwhile, the Orange defended 50 passes, which was tied for 14th in the FBS, with Garrett Williams leading the ACC in passes defended (12) while Melifonwu was another one of the six players in the conference to defend 10 or more.

The run defense grades show that the team’s DBs were also involved in run stopping, but tackles for loss figures reinforce that even more. SU’s secondary accounted for 14 tackles for loss (20% of the team’s total), which is a number more akin to what we saw from a then-young defensive backs group in 2018. Production came from all over too, as eight different DBs recorded at least one tackle for loss.

Not that tackle numbers tell you much about a secondary overall (beyond maybe not being able to stop players from catching the ball to begin with), but it was interesting to see so many young DBs lead the Orange. Ja’Had Carter was second on the team with 67 stops, while Garrett Williams had 64, and Rob Hanna and Melifonwu had 55 apiece.

And while all of the above sound like a lot of positives — and there were — having such a young group out there due to the team’s numerous injuries also had its drawbacks. Syracuse allowed nearly 255 yards per game through the air (95th in the country), which you can accept if other numbers look more respectable. But they also allowed opponents to complete more than 65% of passes, which was the program’s worst figure since at least 2009.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

On top of short throws, SU also allowed more completions of 10 or more yards than all but two teams. They allowed more completions of 20 or more yards than all but six squads. This group was picked apart at times, and that’s at least sort of related to SU’s youth and injury-depleted depth by the end of the season. The hope going forward, of course, is that the reps they gave all of these young guys will be paying off in future seasons.

Speaking of future seasons, there’s still a lot to be high on despite the negative notes immediately above. Losing three players to NFL Draft decisions is tough, but there’s now a lot of (admittedly young) experience ready to step up, led by Garrett Williams. Even new recruits like Duce Chestnut and Malcolm Folk could easily see the field next year, and you’re still not that worried because of the system that’s proven it’s worked for young DBs for several years on end now.

SU could probably use another add or two in the secondary this offseason just to feel better about depth, but it’s at least encouraging that despite another reset at the position, we’re pretty confident that things will be alright. It’s not a cure-all for Syracuse football’s issues. But having a reliable position group year-in and year-out like this is a good step toward getting the program back on solid footing in the long-term.

Grade: A-