The Syracuse Orange recently began spring football practice as the team prepares to move past a disappointing end to last season. Friday was the first day with pads on - and the first chance to see some familiar faces in action.
While there are a few holes to fill before the 2022 campaign gets underway, the defense looks to maintain last year’s form. This unit ranked #19 nationally in total defense (yards allowed per game) during the regular season, in large part due to the efforts of LB Mikel Jones and DB Garrett Williams. Neither was guaranteed to return to Syracuse, but both eventually decided to put off the NFL Draft for one more year.
Jones was one of the most consistent players not just on the Orange, but in the entire ACC last season. He led the conference in solo tackles with 60, was second in total tackles with 110, and was fifth with 13 tackles for loss. All of that earned Jones a First Team All-ACC distinction and some NFL attention prior to the Draft. However, it wasn’t enough in his eyes.
“It was better for me to come back and be with my team,” Jones said. “There’s always room to improve.”
“There’s a lot of games (last year) where we came so close. We could’ve won all of them.”
While the defensive captain had a great 2021 season, not all of his feats from 2020 carried over. In his second year with SU, Jones picked up four interceptions, three forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. Last year, he had only one fumble recovery and zero picks. It’s clear that Jones wants to get back to causing turnovers in his senior season.
“You get complacent, and that’s when people start passing you up,” Jones said.
There is also the appeal of a “home away from home” for Jones here. There were already several other players from the Miami area on the team, and two freshmen just joined that list - LB Mehki Mason and DL Francois Nolton.
“I like being around those guys,” Jones said. “They give me a home feeling, and I just know they’re going to have a lot of success here.”
Then there’s Williams. The cornerback has been a vital part of the Syracuse secondary the last two years. He led the conference in pass breakups with 10 in both seasons. But, like Jones, there were a few areas where Williams could not replicate his 2020 performance. In that year, he had two huge interceptions - Trevor Lawrence’s 1st with Clemson, which he turned into a pick-six, and this beautiful one-handed tap to himself against Louisville:
He was then blanked in the INT column in 2021. While Duce Chesnut picked up the slack with three of his own, Williams felt that he still had unfinished business in Syracuse.
“I have a lot left out there to put on the field, and I feel like I can have a lot better year,” Williams said. “So putting that together with our team having the potential to be really good this season, I feel like made it kind of an easy decision.”
“The expectation for me is to be able to play every snap on defense.”
Williams missed two games last season due to a hamstring injury, so the desire to play a full season again is there. Additionally, Williams wants to play as many snaps on special teams as he can.
“When I first got here, my first time playing was through special teams,” Williams said. “I always liked being on special teams because I thought of it as a way to just get more tackles.”
“I plan to be on punt and punt return, and hopefully kickoff as well.”
These two veteran leaders on defense should help the Orange against a very top-heavy schedule, which features five teams from last year’s AP Top 25.