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Syracuse football 2020 position preview: Defensive backs

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Could this be a position of strength for the Orange this year?

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

At least for the time being, the ACC is still making a go of football season. So until we hear that’s not the case, we’re continuing with these Syracuse Orange previews for 2020.

In advance of said Syracuse season (whenever/if ever it may start), we’re taking a weekly look at each position group on the roster, and every player that may or may not make an impact this year. Last time out, we talked about the Orange’s revamped linebacker corps. adjusting to a new scheme. This time around, we’re on a little more solid footing with the:

Secondary

With a veteran group on the field for 2019, there were relatively high expectations for Syracuse’s defensive backs in preseason. But, as we quickly learned, SU was actually in pretty rough shape despite returning talent. Add in some injuries to key players like Andre Cisco and Ifeatu Melifonwu, and you wind up with a passing defense that allowed over 262 yards per game through the air (110th in the country).

Despite losing two starters in Christopher Fredrick and Evan Foster, there’s still a lot of experience on the field for SU’s secondary. The position group’s collective jobs may also get a bit easier with the addition of a “rover” role in the new 3-3-5 scheme this season. As weird as it may seem, the DBs could very well be the strength of this defense — if no one gets injured, of course.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerbacks

Ifeatu Melifonwu, (Redshirt) Junior

Despite missing three games last year, Melifonwu still defended 10 passes and tied for third in the conference with 1.11 of those per game. He’s a dogged cover corner, and I’d argue the best player on the roster in coverage. Though he’s certainly not opposed to big plays (he did wind up with two picks last season), he’s the lockdown player of the two corner spots. That’s good, because of who’s playing opposite him.

Trill Williams, Junior

Trill, as you are plenty aware, is SU’s big-play corner. The problem is that we haven’t even seen enough of what he can do yet playing mostly as a nickel back. That’ll change now that he’s a full-time starter, and will have the opportunity to play in coverage a lot more and further develop that aspect of his game. His speed and strength put him in position to excel there right away, even if there are a few bumps along the way. If anyone was worried about the turnover-centric attack going away with the coordinator change, Trill likely makes sure it doesn’t.

Eric Coley, (Redshirt) Junior

After serving as a backup safety for the last couple years, Coley moves to the “rover” role, at least according to the March depth chart. That’s an interesting place to deploy him and a natural fit given his safety size (6-foot-2, 206 pounds). Knowing what we’ve seen from this role before (at Arizona State and San Diego State, at least), Coley will have an opportunity to both take advantage of opportunities in coverage and rush the passer here and there. His one interception and one tackle for loss last year show at least glimpses of what that could extrapolate out to.

Adrian Cole, (Redshirt) Freshman

Cole didn’t play much last year (just a couple games and no stats), but the spring depth chart had him backing up Melifonwu and not much has happened since to doubt that. Given the lack of real second-line experience here at corner, he’s actually one of the more veteran scholarship players, and will definitely see the field this year — especially given the tempo SU games usually wind up at.

Garrett Williams, (Redshirt) Freshman

Another redshirt freshman, Williams got some burn on the kickoff team last year, but recorded no stats. Still, any time on the field is valuable at that stage, and now he is poised to serve as Trill’s backup. From his time in high school, he has major playmaking ability and some great hands having played both sides of the ball. Like Cole, he’ll see the field a bunch no matter what.

Devon Clarke, (Redshirt) Senior

After playing safety his entire career at Syracuse, Clarke is now a corner and could be used to avoid burning a redshirt or two among the new freshman. He’s one of the Orange’s tallest defensive backs at 6-foot-2, which could provide some opportunities to get into passing lanes. At the very least, you’d expect him to be part of the kickoff team here in his final season.

Chase Atkinson, Freshman

Given this team’s depth questions at corner, a player like Atkinson could have an opportunity to actually see time on the field in year one. He’s a speedy corner (used to run track), and that’s a valuable asset for this team. He may not have the size to play at rover, but another reserve could also rotate over there, shifting him to a primary backup spot for either corner.

Ja’Had Carter, Freshman

Carter, on the other hand, is a bit closer to the rover size (6-foot-2, 191 pounds), and has a year on most of the other freshman DBs, haven spent a season at prep school. He’s another player who’s been on both sides of the ball, and showed some great hands there. If there’s a true frosh that could work his way into a much larger role (provided he picks up the scheme quickly), it could be him.

Kyle Strickland, (Redshirt) Senior

Strickland returns for his final year as one of the team’s most experienced walk-ons. He’s a kickoff team fixture, but has also played a bit on defense, and could be deployed there again in a pinch. At the very least, you’ll see him on kickoffs once more. Staying power there (and all aspects of special teams) has definitely become a strength for SU.

John Sweetwood, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Sweetwood’s a heady athlete with the unique perspective of being a former quarterback that’s now in the secondary. So while he hasn’t seen the field, that experience potentially helps the walk-on be an extra coach from the sidelines. If he sees the field this year, it could be on special teams.

Nate Erickson, Freshman

Coming to SU from nearby (an hour or so out) Greene, N.Y., Erickson is a redshirt candidate in year one. The Orange usually have walk-ons redshirt when they arrive, and that seems likely here as well as he gets acclimated to the team and system.

Safeties

Andre Cisco, Junior

The active FBS interception leader returns for what could wind up being his final year at Syracuse if he does enough to convince scouts he’s a day one NFL Draft pick (he may have done that already, to be honest). Even last year, despite missing three games and not being 100% for a couple more, he still wound up tied for third in the ACC (with Melifonwu) in passes defended per game — and was seventh in the country in picks with five. Somehow, he’s also gotten even bigger too, at 6-feet tall and 209 pounds. That should mean a continuation of the same success, even with a slight nomenclature shift to “box safety” in this new scheme.

Aman Greenwood, (Redshirt) Freshman

Greenwood played in just one game last year (Holy Cross), but apparently that and the offseason were enough to get him a starting nod — for now — at free safety. The D.C. product has the sort of speed and coverage ability that should be big difference-makers once he eases into the new role a bit. It’s also a nice balance with the dynamic Cisco opposite him.

Neil Nunn, (Redshirt) Freshman

Though Nunn didn’t see the field last year, he’ll be there this year in some form. The spring depth chart had him as the backup free safety, but he has the ability to play corner as well and could be someone to watch in the rover role if Coley sees a challenge. In high school, Nunn was a solid hitter with great hands on both sides of the ball, and after, he was one of the best SU players in the class of 2019. He’s one of the more exciting players for Orange fans to get a first look at this season.

Cam Jonas, (Redshirt) Sophomore

We haven’t seen Jonas since he arrived on campus — he redshirted in 2018 and then didn’t play last year — but that’s changing this season, as he’s currently slated as Cisco’s backup. He has the sort of size that should serve as a capable stand-in (nearly identical to Andre at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds), and is likely to be utilized to give Cisco a breather here and there, at minimum.

Ben Labrosse, Freshman

Like many Canadian prospects, Labrosse may have been underscouted, and that could wind up being to our benefit. He has great size already at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, and his high school product shows the sort of big-play capabilities that this secondary has become known for. He’s another player on my short list for a look at the rover spot, despite only recently arriving on campus.

Rob Hanna, Freshman

Hanna comes in at a fairly light 168 pounds, but that’s pretty similar to Cole, who’s slated as a backup corner. This does feel like a bit of a redshirt season for him as he learns the system and adds a few pounds. However, there’s some quality potential here at safety. At Miami Palmetto, he showed both great coverage ability and the versatility to play some outside linebacker as well.

Kevin Nusdeo, (Redshirt) Junior

Nusdeo has great size as a walk-on, at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, and actually saw the field a bit last year against both Holy Cross and Boston College (recorded a stop against the Eagles in that blowout loss). Dating back to his high school days, he had great hands and played on both sides of the ball. That seems like an easy pick for kick coverage duties this year.

AJ Calabro, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Though Calabro hasn’t seen the field yet for Syracuse, he’s made a major impact on the special teams group in practice. That should result in him eventually getting a shot in-game for special teams. Maybe this could be the year.

Jake Wright, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Local (Jamesville-DeWitt) product Wright has yet to see the field for Syracuse, but could contend for special teams time this year given his size and tackling ability — he was also on the wrestling team at JD, after all. Impressively, he’s tacked on about 30 pounds since his senior year wrestling days.

Like I said, this is an interesting and experienced group — provided everyone stays healthy. But as you can see based on the depth chart, very few players have seen the field beyond the starters. That’s a bit of a tightrope when it comes to injuries, and we saw what happened last year when a couple starters wound up missing time.

The new 3-3-5 shouldn’t take the playmaking away, and another year of big turnover numbers (SU has collected at least 25 takeaways in each of the last two seasons) will only continue to grow that brand and help bring in more talent. Syracuse will also face an interesting balance this year as they look to obviously give as much time as possible to the names at the top of the depth chart, while also getting some burn for the long list of scholarship reserves. At least one player from this secondary could very well be NFL-bound next spring. The last thing we want is to have to reset with complete inexperience come 2021.