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Syracuse football: the Orange secondary has gotten off to a great start

An overlooked group has excelled to start 2023

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the 2023 season, the Syracuse Orange secondary was viewed as an area of concern by many fans.

The departures of Garrett Williams, Deuce Chestnut and Ja’Had Carter left a lot of talent to fill and through four games, several players have stepped into those roles. According to the Pro Football Focus grades, Syracuse’s top starters on the defense are Isaiah Johnson (81.5), Alijah Clark (80.8), Jeremiah Wilson (78.8) and Justin Barron (76.5).

Johnson, Clark and Wilson all grade above 80 in coverage through the first quarter of the season and have allowed Rocky Long to deploy his 3-3-5 in some tighter coverages. With Johnson and Wilson playing a lot of man, the Orange safeties are able to focus on the middle of the field which has been a problem point in years past.

Opponents have targeted Wilson most frequently, but he and Johnson have held them to under 55% completion percentage as the duo have combined for five pass break-ups and one interception. The challenge will get tougher starting with Clemson’s 6’3” Beaux Collins. It would seem as though the Tigers will want to get Collins on the smaller Wilson, so it’s something to keep an eye on this Saturday.

One other wrinkle that jumps out from the PFF stats is that Long is using Marlowe Wax in coverage (he grades 75 so far in that area) and blitzing other linebackers. We saw the impact Wax can have against Purdue and his ability to play in space will be key when Clemson sends Will Shipley out on routes.

Having the back five hold up longer, allows the Syracuse pass rush more chances to get to the quarterback and create chaos. The Orange being able to trust the coverage means Rocky Long can look to confuse quarterbacks with blitzes coming from different directions. As the schedule gets tougher, it will be interesting to see if the secondary can continue this outstanding play.