Defense — 2017 Syracuse football preview

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Franklin leads a Syracuse defense that will need to improve

DEFENSIVE OUTLOOK

DEFENSIVE LINE:

For the second straight season, the front four for the Orange is a young, inexperienced group. This time around, a couple medical disqualifications are contributing factors, as junior nose tackle Steven Clark and junior college transfer defensive end Josh Allen both were both disqualified over the summer. Clark started nine games last season for SU and had 16 tackles as a space-eater in the middle of the trenches. Allen, who committed to Syracuse in April, never suited up for the Orange.

There are a couple veterans in the mix at defensive tackle, as redshirt juniors Chris Slayton and Kayton Samuels will return at defensive tackle. Slayton started every game last season, moving inside from defensive end after three contests, and tied for the team lead with ten tackles for loss, including a team-best four sacks. Samuels appeared in ten games last season, starting five of them, after starting every game as a freshman. He is also in the mix at nose tackle.

Sophomore McKinley Williams, who played in every game as a true freshman, including one start, is competing with Samuels for the starting spot at nose tackle. Williams posted 2.5 tackles for loss in his first season. Sophomore Kenneth Ruff, who continues to bulk up as he transitions from high school linebacker to defensive end to defensive tackle, saw limited action as a freshman, but showed some playmaking ability.

The defensive ends are fighting through some injuries in camp, as Josh Black and Jake Pickard, who are slotted at one defensive end spot, both spent some time nursing leg injuries in camp. Black, the expected starter, has the less severe injury, had 21 tackles, including four for loss, in his freshman season. Pickard, a redshirt sophomore, played in ten games last season, highlighting his debut season with an interception at Wake Forest, but the severity of his injury is unknown.

Kendall Coleman and Brandon Berry will duke it out for the other end spot with Coleman the likely winner. Coleman started 11 times as a freshman and led his class with 29 tackles, including a sack. Berry, a redshirt sophomore transfer from Highland Community College in Kansas, has three years of eligibility at SU. Reliant on his quickness at 223 pounds, Berry was a star at Highland, finishing the season with 60 tackles, including 21 for loss, and had 12.5 sacks, good for sixth in the nation at the junior college level.

Another junior college defensive end was added to the defensive end mix during preseason camp, as the Orange brought Alton Robinson to the squad in late August. Rated a four-star prospect coming out of high school and originally committed to Texas A&M, Robinson spent his freshman year at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, where he had 67 tackles and finished third in the nation with 14 sacks. If Robinson can get caught up enough despite his late start to contribute, that will be a big plus, as well.

POSITIONAL PREDICTION: The Orange need all the bodies they can muster on the line to slow down their opponents. SU gave up 5.4 yards per carry last season and logged only 16 sacks. While blame for this does not all fall on the line, those numbers suggest any growth shown by this unit over last year is a needed improvement. Slayton and Williams have the size to compete in the ACC, but will need help from Samuels and Ruff to hold down the middle. Black’s health is key for the pass rush, as he carries the most weight outside at only 250 pounds. Familiarity with the defensive scheme and responsibilities, along with an extra year of physical development for this young group, should lead to an improved result from this young group, but there will be bumps along the way.

LINEBACKERS:

The second level of defense is the best position group on the entire Syracuse roster. It has experience among the projected starters and plenty of promising depth.

Senior middle linebacker Zaire Franklin is expected to be named a team captain for the third time and his play on the field befits the honor. Often the emotional leader of the defense, Franklin was very productive, logging 101 tackles, including ten for loss, along with an interception and a forced fumble. Having appeared in every game in three years at SU, including starting the last 27 contests, Franklin also earned All-ACC honors from multiple media outlets, both after last season and before this one. Sophomore Andrew Armstrong is slotted to back up Franklin. Armstrong played in all 12 games as a freshman, making 16 stops in limited opportunities.

Classmate Parris Bennett is Franklin’s right-hand man at weak-side linebacker, having led the team with 110 stops last year, including 6.5 for loss. Bennett finished third in the ACC in tackles per game and twice topped 15 tackles in a game last season, headlined by 17 stops against Notre Dame. Ryan Guthrie is in line to back up Bennett. A junior college transfer from Ellsworth Community College in Iowa, Guthrie rang up 266 tackles in two seasons, including 107 solo stops last year, tops among all junior college players. Guthrie was a playmaker as well, making 25.5 tackles for loss, forcing three fumbles, recovering four fumbles, and pulling down an interception.

Jonathan Thomas returns for his senior season at strong-side linebacker after starting nine games there last season. Thomas finished fifth on the team with 52 tackles last season. Graduate transfer Austin Valdez is an intriguing addition to the linebacker unit. Coming to the Orange from Bowling Green, where he played under Babers and defensive coordinator Brian Ward, Valdez has familiarity with the defensive scheme. In Babers and Ward’s final season at BGSU, Valdez earned All-Mid-American Conference First Team honors after topping the team with 144 tackles and adding ten tackles for loss.

» Related: Offense — 2017 Syracuse football preview

POSITIONAL PREDICTION: The strength of the defense, Franklin and Bennett will headline the linebacker unit. Expect to see those two on the field as much as possible and the remaining players will all be involved on special teams coverage units (including Shy Cullen and converted safety Kielan Whitner), as well as rotating in on defense. Valdez is a wild card, but his experience with Babers and Ward make him an addition that could pay off in a big way. Thomas is entrenched as the starter, so if Valdez supplants him during the season, that will suggest big things from the transfer.

DEFENSIVE BACKS:

Bodies, bodies, bodies. That is what SU features in the defensive backfield as they welcome back some familiar faces from injury, as well as some potential impact transfers.

The undersized Antwan Cordy, who was forced to redshirt after suffering a forearm injury in the second game last season, looks to return to his sophomore season form. The undersized redshirt junior, who started all 12 games in 2015 at strong safety despite being only 5’8” and 181 pounds, had 68 tackles, including a dozen for loss, two seasons ago. Fellow redshirt junior Juwan Dowels, who started once at cornerback last season, also went down for the year in the second game of the season. He is back in the mix at corner once more.

The two graduate transfers in the defensive backfield should see playing time, as well, adding height and length to the secondary. Jordan Martin, who played in 34 games as a cornerback over three seasons at Toledo, brings his size (6’3”, 206 pounds) to the Orange defensive backs. In spite of playing at corner while a Rocket, Martin was moved to safety during camp and may open the season as the starter at strong safety. The other graduate transfer is Devin M. Butler, who played three seasons at Notre Dame before redshirting last year and transferring to SU. At 6’1”, Butler will add size to the cornerback corps.

Also in the mix are a couple returning starters in Rodney Williams and Christopher Fredrick. Williams, a redshirt junior, started the last ten games at strong safety last season and was credited with 60 tackles, good for fourth on the team. Fredrick started six times at cornerback and showed a knack for making plays, forcing a pair of fumbles and logging both a fumble recovery and an interception. The pick and both forced fumbles came against Florida State.

Following spring football, there were two new names listed as starters on the depth chart, both sophomores. Scoop Bradshaw, who was banged up during training camp, was listed as a starter as one cornerback slot coming out of spring and Evan Foster was listed first at strong safety. Bradshaw played in ten games as a true freshman and Foster appeared in nine.

Two other players who saw a lot of action last year and will be in the mix again are Daivon Ellison and Cordell Hudson. Ellison started nine times at safety last season and showed physical play as the primary feature of his game. Although undersized at 5’8” and 181 pounds, Ellison was third on the Orange with 90 tackles, reaching double figures in stops five times, and also returned an interception 50 yards against Louisville. Hudson has ten starts in his two seasons on campus, half of them coming last year. The redshirt junior has three picks his two seasons at SU, leading all current players.

POSITIONAL PREDICTION: The coaching staff does not lack for options with this group of defensive backs, which is much more likely to survive injuries, should they pop up as they did last season. The upside of those injuries is that a lot of players got placed on an accelerated developmental schedule, making them more ready to play this time around. Cordy’s return will provide leadership and the additions of Martin and Butler will give the group more size, experience, and flexibility. Cordy is the only player who seems like a lock as a starter for the full campaign. Martin’s shift to strong safety is likely a move to get better coverage ability out of the starters in a base defensive package. The bottom line is all of these options mean the best players will play, even if they change on a weekly basis, and the special teams coverage units will not lack for contributors.

RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS (9): LB Parris Bennett, DE Josh Black, DE Kendall Coleman, S Daivon Ellison, LB Zaire Franklin, CB Christopher Fredrick, DT Chris Slayton, LB Jonathan Thomas, S Rodney Williams

LEADING RETURNERS IN TACKLES: Parris Bennett – 110 tackles, 6.5 for loss; Zaire Franklin – 101 tackles, ten for loss

LEADING RETURNERS IN SACKS: Chris Slayton– four

LEADING RETURNERS IN INTERCEPTIONS: Seven players with one each

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Jim Stechschulte

About Jim Stechschulte

A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.
Special Teams & Schedule Analysis — 2017 Syracuse football preview
Offense — 2017 Syracuse football preview

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