Chuck Bullough’s unit was quite strong last season, finishing 26th in the nation in total defense and 37th in points allowed. These overall results were especially positive in light of how much the unit was overworked. The Orange defense averaged 33:19 of field time last season, including 34:32 per game doing the season-ending five-game slide. While the defense remained mostly healthy last season (eight players started every game for SU), only five players who started at any time last season are back, and that number includes two players who combined to start four games. While the scheme is player-friendly, several players are being pushed into extensive action for the first time on all three levels.
The line features the defense’s most established returning player in defensive end Ron Thompson. The redshirt junior started every game in 2014 and leads all returning players with seven tackles for loss while playing last season as an undersized defensive tackle. Thompson, however, got sidelined early in camp and missed practice time, but is expected to return in time for the opener. Redshirt senior Donnie Simmons is slated for the other defensive end spot with converted linebacker Luke Arciniega expected to provide some speed in pass rush situations.
The most experienced defensive tackle on the roster is redshirt senior John Raymon, who has fought back from a brutal knee injury to return to the trenches. Raymon recorded 3.5 tackles for loss in very limited time over the last two seasons. That limited time, however, is more than the rest of the rotation players on the two-deep. Redshirt freshman Kayton Samuels is slated to start at nose tackle and freshman Steven Clark, a late commit from Alabama who doubles as a powerlifter, is listed as his backup. Chris Slayton, a redshirt freshman, and Tyler Cross, a true freshman, are listed as Raymon’s support. In short, the middle of the defensive line is filled with opportunity for the young bucks.
Two linebackers who combined to fill the middle linebacker spot last season return to anchor the unit. Junior Marqez Hodge started the first nine games in the middle as a sophomore before having his season ended by injury. Hodge logged 5.5 tackles for loss last season, including three sacks, and also returned a fumble 36 yards for a touchdown against Central Michigan. Hodge slides to the weak side to make room for Zaire Franklin, who piled up 44 stops as a freshman, to man the middle. Franklin started the final three games of the season for the Orange, including a ten-tackle outing against Pitt. Big things should be on the horizon for Franklin, who represented the Syracuse defense at ACC Media Days as a sophomore. Parris Bennett, who made eight appearances as a freshman, is slated to play the other outside linebacker spot. The rotation is rounded out by redshirt senior Oliver Vigille, redshirt sophomore Alryk Perry, and junior college transfer Ted Taylor.
Prior to training camp, head coach Scott Shafer declared every starting job in the secondary is open. One player with an inside track a lineup spot is sophomore strong safety Antwan Cordy. While undersized (5’8”, 178), Cordy plays bigger than his size and started at cornerback for the season finale at Boston College. Two inexperienced players are competing for the free safety slot in redshirt sophomore Chauncey Scissum and redshirt freshman Rodney Williams. Scissum spent significant time on special teams last season while Williams, who had his season ended in the second game of the season due to injury, is listed as the starting free safety coming into the season.
At corner, senior Julian Whigham started 11 games last season and has appeared in 32 games in his career, but is in a fight for the job this year. Whigham had three interceptions as a sophomore, but had issues at times last season and now is being pushed by two redshirt freshmen, Cordell Hudson and Juwan Dowels. The other cornerback spot is up for grabs between redshirt junior Wayne Morgan and redshirt sophomore Corey Winfield. Morgan missed only one game in his first two seasons, but was awarded an injury redshirt in 2014 after being knocked out for the season after three games. Winfield switched to the defensive backfield from wide receiver prior to last season and logged 13 tackles, primarily as a special teams contributor, and has earned the starting nod for the outset of the 2015 season.
RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS (3): LB Marqez Hodge, DE Ron Thompson, CB Julian Whigham
LEADING RETURNERS IN TACKLES: Zaire Franklin – 44 tackles; Marqez Hodge – 38 tackles; Ron Thompson – 32 tackles
LEADING RETURNERS IN SACKS: Marqez Hodge, Ron Thompson – three; Zaire Franklin – two
LEADING RETURNERS IN INTERCEPTIONS: Antwan Cordy, Julian Whigham – one
Californian Cole Murphy had a fairly quick rise last season, going from walk-on to kickoff specialist to winning the kicker spot from Ryan Norton. Norton was choppy early in the season, making 4-of-7 field goals, and Murphy, who was awarded a scholarship for this season, seized the opportunity after Norton missed a 23-yarder against Maryland. Murphy’s freshman season was a success, as he finished 13-of-16 on field goals, including drilling a pair of 50-yard bombs. Norton will handle the kickoff dutied for the Orange. Once again, Riley Dixon was steady at punter, averaging 42.4 yards a kick and sending 23 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard-line. He also forced fair catches on 31 of his 75 punts.
The Orange need to inject some big play capability into their return game after averaging just over 18 yards on kickoff returns and eight yards on punt returns. One way to do that is re-installing Brisly Estime at both punt and kickoff returner. Estime returned a punt 70 yards two years ago against Minnesota to set up the winning score in the Texas Bowl and that big play ability should help SU in the field position battle. Erv Philips was the leading kickoff returner for Syracuse last season, generating a 19-yard average on 25 returns, including a long of 31 yards, and will also be involved on both kickoff and punt returns.
One of the off-field additions that should help special teams overall is the addition of former SU player Steve Gregory to the coaching staff following an eight-year NFL career as the special teams quality control coach. While listed at an entry-level position as a coach, Gregory’s expertise should help the Orange coverage units improve in the battle for field position.