clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Syracuse football 2020 spring preview: Secondary

Can SU’s defensive backs find new life in a new scheme?

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

The Syracuse Orange football team added 23 new players this offseason — thanks to recruiting and the transfer portal. And with those additions, we turned the page to the 2020 season... despite the fact that kickoff isn’t until September (hopefully).

As you know, spring practice has officially been cancelled amid coronavirus fears, so that’s not necessarily going to help this team with new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Still, we’ll be finishing up the last couple position group previews anyway, focusing on the players currently enrolled (and who were participating in spring ball before things went sideways).

Last week, we took a look at how linebackers would be adapting to another new scheme, while also resetting the starters. This time around:

Can the secondary turn big-play ability into consistency?

Who’s gone?

Several long-time members of the team, including two starters in Christopher Fredrick and Evan Foster (plus former starting corner Scoop Bradshaw). Despite some struggles in his final year on campus, Fredrick did wind up with three picks and was fifth on the team with 53 tackles. Foster was third on the team in stops with 76, and was another player who did find some improvement later on in the year — but the damage was done, unfortunately, in Brian Ward’s scheme already.

Antwan Cordy, who wound up playing some corner and nickel last year, also departs after tallying 29 tackles, five pass break-ups and three tackles for loss. Though the numbers don’t jump off the page, Cordy also wound up in frequent mismatches while playing away from his natural position of safety yet still getting results.

Also departed: DuWayne Johnson and Carl Jones, plus walk-on Kyle Strickland.

Who’s on campus?

Despite what looked like a longer list of names above, there’s actually a decent amount of talent and experience remaining in the Orange secondary. Andre Cisco, Ifeatu Melifonwu and Trill Williams will be standouts for the group, and we’ll see additional contributions from more experienced players like Eric Coley (48 stops last year), Allen Stritzinger (18 tackles) and Devon Clarke. They’ll be joined by younger players like Cam Jonas, Garrett Williams, Neil Nunn, Adrian Cole and Aman Greenwood. As you know, Dino Babers has been adding defensive backs at a pretty steady clip in recent classes.

Walk-ons John Sweetwood, Kevin Nusdeo, AJ Calabro and Jake Wright were also on campus this spring.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Robert Hanna (Miami), Ben LaBrosse (Montreal) and Chase Atkinson (Blythewood, S.C.) will all be joining the team as true freshmen, with Hanna rated as one of the top 2-3 SU players in this class according to 247Sports’ composite rankings (LaBrosse — still top 10 according to composite ratings — could’ve potentially been right up there too with more services scouting Canada).

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Clemson at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Does Andre Cisco have a ceiling at this point?

The fact that Cisco was unable to duplicate his All-American campaign from freshman year is a bummer, but also understandable. Opposing teams tried to avoid him as much as possible, he missed three games and wasn’t 100% for several more, and the defense around him performed considerably worse than it had in 2018.

And yet, despite all of that, Cisco was still second-team All-ACC, led the conference in interceptions with five, and was top-three in the league in passes defended per game (1.11).

Since midway through his first season, I’ve argued that Cisco rarely makes the same mistake twice and is a reliable player to improve over the course of a season. He was already one of the team’s top athletes these past two years, and now he’s bulked up even more (!!!). To answer the initial question, I don’t even know where his ceiling is and think he’s likely playing to be a first round NFL Draft pick in 2021 as one of the country’s top ballhawks. So expect something impressive as he continues his assault on the Orange record books.

What’s going to look different in the 3-3-5 under new coordinator Tony White?

Given White’s experience working with defensive backs, hopefully quite a bit looks different from last year’s struggles. SU was 110th in passing defense last year while allowing 262.5 yards per game through the air and four different games letting teams throw for 400 yards or more against them. Perhaps surprisingly, Syracuse was one of the best teams in the country in terms of opposing completion percentage (53.4%), but were middle of the road in terms of yards per attempt allowed (7.4).

The biggest issue in 2019 (and maybe most recent seasons) was big plays, something that the scheme should be able to account for a bit better. With linebackers now better tasked with reading plays, and a third safety (will potentially be a nickel corner like Trill Williiams) there to provide more coverage in the shorter part of the field, it should mean this team’s getting beat through the air a lot less than what we’ve seen lately... provided the remaining talent on the roster is up to the task, of course.

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

Who replaces graduated starters Evan Foster and Chris Fredrick?

Whether or not the new scheme actually works out depends pretty heavily on who’s able to step up. As mentioned, Foster and Fredrick did struggle as seniors, and that certainly didn’t help matters when looking at the injuries suffered by both Cisco and Melifonwu too.

For this season, Trill could wind up slotting into the corner role opposite Melifonwu. A lot of that will depend on how White uses that fifth defender, however. We’ve previously mentioned that we could see interchange between Trill and Tyrell Richards from a situational standpoint. When Richards occupies the spot, that could mean Trill’s the other corner. When Trill’s in the five spot (has been previously called an “Aztec” role — but that was with SDSU, so I’d assume we’d change that), the other corner seems likely to be a younger player like Cam Jonas, Adrian Cole or Aman Greenwood.

Opposite Cisco, Coley seems to be the heir apparent at strong safety, though Nunn was highly touted coming out of high school and could potentially challenge there.

How can this unit do a better job stopping big plays while also still creating their own?

That’s really the biggest challenge for this group. While 2018 showed promise, it was a glut of big plays and turnovers that bailed out an otherwise middle-of-the-road group. Turnovers dipped slightly last year (as they were bound to), and results looked much worse despite what was basically the same group of players.

Previous Tony White defenses haven’t lacked for turnovers, while also managing to be consistent teams that were capable at stopping the pass to a reasonable extent. Those teams didn’t necessarily play with the same offensive tempo that Syracuse does, but they did prove that this scheme isn’t necessarily putting big plays by the wayside in order to execute consistently.

SU’s defense has become exciting again of late while pursuing high-risk/high-reward turnovers, and we’re glad to see it. This year’s secondary will be challenged to flip the field once more while not exposing themselves as much to long passing plays. This appears to be the scheme to help make hat happen. We’ll see if the younger players on this roster are up to the challenge, though. Like last year, the Orange DBs still remain an injury away from a major issue.