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Syracuse football 2021 season report card: Defensive backs

How’d the secondary fare with a soft reset in 2021?

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

We’re not quite done discussing the 2021 Syracuse Orange football season, even if you’re desperately trying to distance yourself following a disappointing 5-7 finish. Alas, we refuse to leave well enough alone, as you’re certainly used to by now.

Last week started our position-by-position grades on the offensive side of the ball (quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers & offensive line), and this week, we moved onto the defensive side with defensive line and linebackers already complete. Now we’re moving onto:

Defensive Backs

An injury-riddled 2020 for the secondary gave us hope that this group could hit the ground running in 2021 despite some obvious youth throughout the depth chart. And while it was true that Syracuse’s DBs looked solid early on, something clearly sprung a leak as the season continued — despite some solid individual play. Admittedly, though, it’s a complicated story to piece together.

For example, the Orange were 30th in the country in passing defense, allowing just 204 yards per game through the air, which is pretty good. However, teams also completed 66% of their throws against SU (116th in the country), SU allowed 22 passing touchdowns, and also failed to really turn teams over much, tallying just four picks.

‘Cuse was also a bit susceptible to big plays, though even that story’s not necessarily straightforward.

While they allows just 81 passing plays of 10 or more yards (tied for fifth-best in the country), 38 of those went for 20 or more, which was 61st in the country. And 19 of those were gains of 30-plus (81st in the FBS). So when this team was beat through the air, they were beat. But it’s hard to definitively say that big plays were A THING against this defense since the numbers don’t really show that. Part of the issue was also the team’s issues specifically in zone coverage, which — at least on the eye test — seemed to create more issues for them than man coverage did. You can point to special teams and offensive struggles as well handing them short fields many times, especially late in the season.

Thing is, though, this group still put together solid individual efforts. They just weren’t always impacting the game in ways we assumed.

For one, cornerback Duce Chestnut wound up being one of the better freshman defenders in the country. He was Syracuse’s second-best defensive player by overall Pro Football Focus grade (only trailing Mikel Jones), was the team’s second-best run defender by grade (79), was the second-best cover man and was a capable pass-rusher as well.

In fact, four of the team’s top 10 defenders by overall PFF grade were in the secondary, and most surprisingly, none of them were Garrett Williams.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Aman Greenwood was SU’s top run defender with a 79.7, while now-transferring corner Adrian Cole was third with a 75.2. Ja’Had Carter and Greenwood were both among the team’s top 10 tacklers by grade. Garrett Williams and Justin Barron were actually the team’s top pass-rushers by grade (with an 80.2 and 74.4, respectively). One of the biggest issues was potentially that Jones, Chestnut and Cole were the only players to score better than a 70.0 in coverage.

While Syracuse still got their hands on passes — 30 break-ups on the year — they also recorded their lowest figure there since 2016. Opposing completion percentage isn’t everything, but the 66% figure mentioned earlier was the worst for Syracuse in over 12 years.

So that’s the thing, really. These defensive backs were very good at run help, they generated pressure in Tony White’s variety of blitzes, and overall contributed a net positive to the defensive effort. The issue potentially arrives when looking at the fact that they were far better in non-coverage situations.

Honestly, if the season had ended with a bowl trip, it’s an easier thing to look past. Syracuse’s defensive backs are clearly talented and clearly impacted the overall defensive effort positively on the season; this despite a slight step back for Garrett Williams, injuries that cut into playing time for Carter, Rob Hanna and Neil Nunn, and the unfortunate early departure of Ben Labrosse. Barron’s emergence was an interesting wrinkle, but again, that positive came in large part with regard to pass rushing. Jason Simmons was capable as well, but best graded out as a run defender.

We don’t yet know what Williams we do from an NFL Draft perspective, but with Cole departing via the transfer portal, a lot of questions pop up at the corner position since Chestnut becomes the only known quantity there. You could argue safeties have a ton of experience and some solid depth, but there are also a lot of questionable results in coverage that create issues over the top.

You also aren’t making a change coaching-wise for the safety spot, since Nick Monroe’s there and is your top recruiter on staff.

That begs the question does this secondary just need to be reshuffled a bit, since it appears that a lot of players work well in specific roles? Having your safeties be solid-to-good in pass rushing situations and run stopping sounds like a great problem to have. And you could argue it helped create opportunities (along with the linebackers) for the defensive line. But if a lot of your best cover men are linebackers, it’s worth taking a look at what’s going on with the safety spot at least.

There’s a chance you can plug in a grad transfer to an already very experienced secondary here and be fine in 2022, even if Williams opts to head to the draft. It’s still doable without that sort of add. But then you’re likely facing the same coverage questions that plagued the back of the secondary this season. And I just don’t think that works again — especially since teams appeared to figure things out as the season wore on.

Grade: B- (but would give safeties a C+ and corners a B, if we’re splitting things up)