With Syracuse less than a week away from kickoff, The Juice Online will be doing its annual week-long football preview. Check back in tomorrow as Jim Stechschulte previews special teams.
Just like the offense, the defense is undergoing a schematic change. Unlike the offense, the defense will be shifting to a less aggressive scheme. Under Scott Shafer, the defense was aimed at putting pressure on the opposition, looking to force them into mistakes. The new staff is employing the “Tampa-2” defense, a more zone-reliant defense aimed at limiting big plays by keeping everything in front of them.
That different style is also aimed at forcing mistakes, but in a different way. The old defense tried to get pressure on the quarterback and force mistakes directly. In contrast, the new defense is one where it tries to make the opponent string together long drives and execute repeatedly in order to move the ball down the field. The “Tampa-2” also aims to get pressure on the opposing quarterback by rushing four linemen, occasionally mixing in blitzes. The previous defense relied on pressure from all angles, putting the cornerbacks in man-to-man situations.
In addition to needing strong pass rush from the defensive line, the new defense ideally has some different personnel features. In the back seven, players who are taller and longer are ideal. All three linebackers, particularly the middle linebacker, should be fleet of foot to drop into coverage zones. They should also be bigger than the ones preferred under the previous coaching staff, who seemed to value speed over size among their linebackers.
The defensive line is a rather green group, but a lot is expected from some of that youth. Chris Slayton, who leads all returning defensive linemen with 22 tackles and six tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman, received freshman All-American honors from a couple media outlets last season. While he played at defensive tackle last season, he has received some work at defensive end in camp. Sophomore defensive tackle Steven Clark was right on Slayton’s heels with 21 stops last season. While those two appeared in every game last season, redshirt sophomore Kayton Samuels started all dozen contests last year at nose tackle. Those three will be in the mix at defensive tackle, as well as Brandon Giudice and Tyler Cross, who redshirted last year.
Part of the reason Slayton may see time at defensive end is because no other end on the roster has seen game action at Syracuse. De’Jon Wilson, however, is a graduate transfer from Colorado who is spending his last season of eligibility in Orange. Wilson did not see any game action last year for the Buffaloes, but did play in 22 games the previous two years. Redshirt freshman Jake Pickard has the inside track to one starting defensive end spot. A former Wisconsin verbal commit who was also recruited by Michigan in high school, Pickard should have an opportunity to pay off his high recruit status. There are also a cluster of freshmen defensive ends who will have an opportunity in Josh Black, Kendall Coleman, Jaquwan Nelson, and Kenneth Ruff.
The linebackers are a much more established unit. Zaire Franklin, who led the team with 81 tackles and finished second with 11 tackles for loss, returns at middle linebacker. Franklin was a team captain last year as a sophomore and has appeared in every game in his two years on campus. Parris Bennett, who started eight games last season before getting injured, will likely start next to Franklin. Marquez Hodge, who has 24 starts in three seasons on campus, is currently slated to back up Bennett. The third starting spot is up for grabs between junior Jonathan Thomas and senior Ted Taylor. Thomas, who has only played football for a handful of years, piled up 34 tackles last season, including seven at Florida State. Taylor, who entered the starting lineup after Bennett’s injury last year, had 27 stops, including five tackles for loss and a pair of sacks. Two other players in the mix are redshirt sophomore Shyheim Cullen and true freshman Andrew Armstrong.
The defensive backfield returns a decent amount of experience, led by junior safety Antwan Cordy. Undersized, but a big hitter and a playmaker, Cordy piled up 68 tackles last season, including a dozen for loss, and added a pair of interceptions and a pair of fumble recoveries, including one returned for a score at Virginia. A pair of cornerbacks, redshirt sophomore Cordell Hudson and redshirt junior Corey Winfield, also each had a pair of interceptions. Hudson started five times last year, the last four coming after Winfield, who started the first eight, was felled by injury.
Juwan Dowels, who started five games at corner last season, is back for his redshirt sophomore year and is also in the mix at corner. Rodney Williams and Chauncey Scissum, who split time at safety last season are both back at that position again. Scissum took over the starting spot for the last seven games and piled up 43 tackles on the year, good for second among the defensive backs. Kielan Whitner, who had 33 tackles to lead all Syracuse freshmen last season, and redshirt senior Wayne Morgan, who has seen action in 41 games in his career, will threaten for playing time, as well.
RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS (9): LB Parris Bennett, S Antwan Cordy, CB Juwan Dowels, LB Zaire Franklin, LB Marquez Hodge, DT Kayton Samuels, S Chauncey Scissum, DT Chris Slayton, CB Corey Winfield
LEADING RETURNERS IN TACKLES: Zaire Franklin – 81 tackles, 11 for loss; Antwan Cordy – 68 tackles, 12 for loss
LEADING RETURNERS IN SACKS: Zaire Franklin – three
LEADING RETURNERS IN INTERCEPTIONS: Cordell Hudson and Corey Winfield – two interceptions