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Syracuse football 2021 position preview: Defensive backs

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DBU, back in action

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

Believe it or not, we’re just about done with our 2021 Syracuse Orange position previews as the upcoming season is just weeks away. With camp already off and running, it’s now only a matter of time before SU lines up for game one vs. Ohio. And lucky you, every single detail about this squad will be at your fingertips already via our (perhaps exhaustive) previews dating all the way back to February.

If you’ve missed any of TNIAAM’s 2021 position profiles to this point, maybe start with last week’s linebackers deep dive and work backward. This week, we’re looking at:

Defensive Backs

Going into the 2020 season, the one thing we were pretty sure of was that the Syracuse secondary was going to be alright. With Andre Cisco, Trill Williams and Ifeatu Melifonwu back there, it was perhaps the lone area where Orange fans could feel reasonably confident in a way that even lowered our nerves about the then-green linebackers.

Of course, that’s not exactly how things turned out. Cisco was out by the opening warm-ups of game three and never saw the field again for SU en route to being picked in the third round. Trill was gone by the Clemson game, and is now aiming to make the Dolphins as a free agent. Ultimately, what was seen as an experienced group at the top level early on was quickly turned over to Iffy, Garrett Williams, a collection of very young safeties and assorted corners, and a brand-new defensive scheme. The results, as you know, were mixed, especially as injuries piled up on both sides of the ball for this Orange squad.

Cornerbacks

Garrett Williams, (Redshirt) Freshman

Williams earned honorable mention All-ACC honors last year while collecting 64 tackles, three TFLs, 10 pass break-ups, two picks and a touchdown (against Trevor Lawrence, no less) in his first season on the field. He was SU’s third-ranked defender in pass coverage last year according to PFF, and is the best returning player there. His cover abilities (didn’t allow a touchdown until the final game in 2020) is a big reason why we’re all probably higher on this secondary than national media is despite the NFL departures.

Darian “Duce” Chestnut, Freshman

Syracuse’s top-rated 2021 recruiting addition has been on campus since January and seems like the next electrifying DB to get plugged into the turnover machine here. He was an impressive playmaker in high school with 13 special teams touchdowns, and a nose for the ball. If there’s a true frosh that can contribute right away this year, Duce is easily the top pick.

Chase Atkinson, Freshman

Atkinson hasn’t seen live football action in awhile, since he didn’t play last year and was injured during his senior year of high school ball. We won’t make any assumptions yet about why he didn’t play last year despite the injuries in front of him, but at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, he has the size to be able to jump right in to contribute for ‘Cuse — especially with only so many scholarship players that are really natural fits at corner.

Adrian Cole, (Redshirt) Freshman

Unlike Atkinson, Cole did see the field a bit last year, appearing in five games and recording 10 tackles during those contests. Injuries might have cleared the way for playing time, but he did make the most of things and had a couple “bigger’ games, including five stops vs. Louisville and four vs. Notre Dame. He’ll be right in the thick of the starting corner competition during camp.

Neil Nunn, (Redshirt) Freshman

Nunn came to Syracuse with plenty of hype, but we haven’t really been able to see a ton of him yet. After redshirting in year one, he played in just four games in 2020 before injury, recording three stops. Nunn’s a big hitter who could be plugged in at safety instead. Ultimately, though, he’ll probably get snaps where needed — and right now, that’s at corner, with fewer experienced bodies available.

John Sweetwood, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Sweetwood’s one of the more experienced walk-ons among the many on this roster. And while there aren’t a ton of names ahead of him here, it would be much more likely to see him out there on special teams than it would on defense in 2021.

AJ Calabro, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Despite also being a walk-on, Calabro’s been a key scout team contributor and even appeared in one game last year vs. NC State. Back in high school, he showed himself to have a nose for the football. Perhaps we see some more of that via more special teams reps this fall.

Clay Masters, Freshman

Masters was one of the many freshman walk-ons to join the roster late last week, and the addition from Oregon (West Linn) would seem most likely to redshirt this year with a more crowded and experienced roster than normal.

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

Safeties

Eric Coley, (Redshirt) Junior

While there was a lot of focus on the Cisco and Trill absences last year, another big one was the experienced Coley at safety and/or rover. He tallied four tackles in game one vs. UNC before his season-ending injury, but had 48 stops in 2019 despite just one start that year. There’s a good chance he’s SU’s starting rover this season, and I’d contend having him back is a much bigger addition than you’d think on paper.

Aman Greenwood, (Redshirt) Freshman

While it wasn’t great to lose someone like Cisco, his absence also created new opportunities for players like Greenwood — who played in 10 contests and started during the final seven. He had 18 tackles and four pass break-ups on the year. And though he was “only” the eight-ranked Orange defender in coverage in 2020 according to PFF, he was one of many SU players to score above a 75 in tackling ability. He’s a likely starter at free safety.

Ja’Had Carter, Freshman

We didn’t have much information on Carter when he was added to the roster or going into the season, but we learned about him pretty quickly since he wound up starting the final 10 games. He was second on the team in tackle with 67, collected three TFLs, three pass break-ups, two INTs and was involved in a couple fumbles as well. There will be competition, but he’s your likely starting strong safety who has coverage upside in year two here.

Jason Simmons, Sophomore

The heavy-hitter joins Syracuse from New Mexico State, though he hasn’t played since 2019 since the Aggies cancelled their 2020 season. When he last played, though, he collected 62 tackles and regularly got into opposing backfields as a key playmaker for NMSU. Depending on how quickly he learns the scheme, he’s an interesting option to plug in at various spots. But admittedly we don’t know much about how SU will use him yet.

Ben Labrosse, Freshman

Labrosse had 11 tackles as a reserve last year, and after a season where he played a lot on special teams, you’ll probably see him on defense far more in 2021. There’s a caveat for limited defensive snaps, but Ben was fourth on the team by PFF coverage grades last year, and the third-ranked tackler (top-ranked returning Orange player there). He may seem further down the list here, but he’ll be very involved.

Rob Hanna, Freshman

Hanna started nine games at rover last year, and will be in the mix again there as most likely competition Eric Coley gets back into the swing of things. He racked up big tackle numbers with 55 on the year, plus a pick and two TFLs. In year one, he certainly took some risks and has some progress to make, but that’s also to be expected. The extensive experience should pay off more in year two.

Justin Barron, Freshman

Barron’s played a lot of different positions over the last few years. After coming in as a possible defensive end, he wound up a wide receiver and then played some defensive back over the final few games of 2020. At 6-foot-4, his best fit is at safety. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s utilized.

Malcolm Folk, Freshman

Folk could be a bit of a diamond in the rough after not getting a chance to play during his senior season. But before that, he was a two-way playmaker, and one that can now plug into this defense and perhaps make an immediate difference. Granted, it won’t be easy to crack though the depth chart above. If we know anything about how Tony White uses defensive backs in this scheme, though, he seems willing to rotate in a lot of bodies.

Cam Reirden, Freshman

Reirden was another two-way player in high school who now gets to play some safety for Syracuse. As a walk-on, it may be a tall order to see the field this year, so a redshirt is the most likely route. He’s 6-feet tall and 185 pounds, though. It could be interesting to see him on special teams early on.

Tommy Porter, Freshman

SU seems to have a knack for adding West Coast walk-ons, and Porter (from Los Angeles County’s La Cañada High School) is just the latest to trade sunny skies for snow. He has similar size to Reirden and was previously a two-sport athlete. Redshirt is still most likely here as well.

***

It would look like Syracuse is replacing a lot in the secondary this year since three rookies are currently in NFL training camps. And yet, because of injuries, we already got a pretty extensive preview last year of what the 2021 Orange defensive backs would look like. To add to the potential upside and positives there too, that was without a full offseason to install the 3-3-5 system, and many of those players to see the field were first- and second-year guys.

With a year of experience for those guys, plus a healthy Eric Coley, transfer Jason Simmons and a top-400ish prospect in Duce Chestnut, I’d content this could be an pleasantly simple transition. if the DBs can take a full step forward in 2021, it’ll make an enormous difference. But it all can’t fall on them either. As is always the case, the wheels start coming off quickly if the offense can’t do anything.