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Syracuse 2021 spring football preview: Defensive backs

A lot of change! But also a lot of returning talent.

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

As Syracuse Orange spring football soldiers on, our position preview series does as well. Since we started this a good month before spring ball began, though, we’re already almost done with this exercise.

Last time around, we took a look at the Orange’s young but talented linebacker corps. This week, we shine a spotlight on another young group, the secondary. While SU’s defensive backs are all pretty young, last year’s injuries actually gave playing time to just about everyone. That’s a big plus now in year two of the 3-3-5 scheme.

And if you missed any of the previous pieces, check out our looks at the defensive line, coaching staff, offensive line, quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers/tight ends. Now;

How does last year’s experience pay off for a young secondary?

Who’s gone?

Some important names that you’ll certainly be hearing on Sundays in the near future. Andre Cisco, Ifeaetu Melifonwu and Trill Williams are all NFL-bound. Additionally, Cam Jonas transferred out and Devon Clarke is not currently enrolled (TBD if the sixth-year senior will return).

Who’s on campus?

Quite a few names, plenty of which got valuable experience as underclassmen this past year given the injuries for Syracuse in 2020.

Without Clarke, Eric Coley is now the elder statesman in the secondary and will be looking to work himself back from a season-ending injury in the first game last year. Despite still being on the younger side, Garrett Williams will be the leader of this group in 2021 following his breakout campaign in the fall as both an excellent cover corner and run defender.

Ja’Had Carter and Rob Hanna return after both finishing among the team’s top five tacklers last year. Aman Greenwood, Ben Labrosse and Adrian Cole are all back as well after extensive playing time last year. Chase Atkinson and Neil Nunn are returning scholarship guys who didn’t see the field, and the latter player is currently recovering from surgery so he won’t be participating in spring ball just yet. Additionally, 2021 signees Malcolm Folk and Duce Chestnut enrolled early and could challenge for playing time.

There’s also quite a few walk-on defensive backs on this roster, who all appear to be returning unless we missed an announcement this offseason. That list: Kyle Strickland, John Sweetwood, Kevin Nusdeo, AJ Calabro and Nate Erickson. Strickland, in particular, appeared in 10 games in 2020.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 New Mexico State at Ole Miss Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who’s arriving this summer?

The lone summer addition is New Mexico State transfer Jason Simmons, who adds more experience to the position group and will challenge for snaps right off the bat. He collected 42 tackles, defended three passes and had a forced fumble when he last suited up in 2019 (the Aggies opted not to play in the fall).

How does this group succeed without three NFL-bound players?

Luckily, we already learned a little bit about how that happens last year, when at two of Cisco, Trill and Iffy were out for the lion’s share of the season. That put a lot of onus on the corners, and forced the safeties (and rover) into a variety of different roles — some of which they fared better with than others. But you could see the future start to sort itself out most Saturdays, even if if didn’t always look pretty.

Where they succeed this year is largely contingent on progress. We’ll get to Garrett Williams below, yet already know we can bank on him. Coley potentially coming back as a rover could be a key veteran presence, and even if Simmons doesn’t start, it’ll create a nice rotation at safety between him, Ben Labrosse (one of SU’s top tacklers last year, per PFF), Aman Greenwood and Ja’Had Carter.

At corner, the immediate hope would be that Chestnut comes in and makes an immediate impact, even if he’s not necessarily Cisco or Trill early on. Cole and Atkinson are the other guys who could slot in at corner opposite Garrett Williams. Rob Hanna could play rover along with Coley.

With luck, Nunn’s healthy and available too. And all of that allows Folk to redshirt if desired. We saw glimmers of big-play ability from a lot of these guys last year while being thrown into the fire. Another year could help refine some of the coverage deficiencies (Garrett and Labrosse were the only returning DBs to score over a 65 in coverage per PFF), and not put Garrett on an island.

What’s the ceiling for Garrett Williams this year?

He was already a quality cover corner last year (72.1 coverage rating on PFF) and missed just 11% of tackles, which was one of the top rates on the team for guys with regular playing time. Of course, all of that was also while playing opposite Iffy, and that stopped teams from being able to completely avoid both players.

As alluded to above, if we see coverage improvements from the other players and capable play opposite him from Duce or Atkinson at the other corner spot, that should allow Williams to get more opportunities for big plays instead of teams just picking on the other side of the field. Garrett’s run defense strength (was second-rated on the team last year, per PFF) is a skill he can continue to expand upon with more help in coverage, too.

His ceiling could be as an all-conference player and possible draft pick in 2022, should he opt to declare early.

is this the strength of the defense?

I’ve asked this question about the previous two groups as well, and I think the linebackers still take it because they’re not replacing the talent that the secondary is. That said, the DBs do really help define the ceiling of this team quite a bit. If they’re healthy and show positive growth compared to last year, you’ll see the rest of the defense operate much smoother. A better secondary should also mean more opportunities to flip the field — something this offense may desperately need once more.

What will we see from Duce Chestnut early?

Chestnut’s a highly-touted recruit, and being on campus early should give him ample opportunities — especially at a corner position that was largely undecided opposite Williams. The challenge for him, and every young player in this secondary, will be balancing the Orange’s need for solid coverage vs. its emphasis on turnovers. Young players in particular can get caught in the trap of too many risks for a handful of rewards. While it may not sound as exciting, it would be ideal if he was a great cover man first, and a turnover machine second.

Again, Duce being on campus early could help with that goal in mind. Whether he winds up starting right away or not, it would be surprising to not see him on the field right away.