Defensive & Special Teams Outlook — 2019 Syracuse Football preview

Kendall Coleman
Jul 17, 2019; Charlotte, NC, USA; Syracuse Orange defensive end Kendall Coleman speaks to members of the media during ACC Kickoff the Westin Charlotte. Mandatory Credit: Brad Bierman, The Juice Online.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The highlight players of the defensive line are senior ends Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson. Both logged ten sacks last season and the Orange got at least one sack from the duo in ten games last season. Each player had multiple sacks in three games, including one effort with three sacks. Coleman notched his trio in the bowl game against West Virginia, while Robinson got his against Connecticut.

A three-year starter, Coleman has 11.5 sacks among his 16 career tackles for loss. Robinson, who has 20 starts in his two years on campus, has 15 sacks and 23 tackles for loss in his career and forced three fumbles last season. Both earned All-ACC honors from various media outlets coming into this season.

The cupboard is not bare beyond the starters. Junior Kingsley Jonathan played in every game last season, starting the last two games. Jonathan finished third on the team with five sacks in that limited action. Redshirt senior Brandon Berry has played in a dozen games in each of his two seasons as SU, starting six times in 2017. He notched his first career sack last season against Notre Dame.

The worst injury suffered by any player in fall camp to this point is a leg injury to senior McKinley Williams. Williams has missed only one game in three years and head coach Dino Babers mentioned in late August that he expects Williams to return from this injury by mid-September. A nine-time starter at nose tackle last season (15 starts overall), Williams was slotted at defensive tackle coming into the year.

Josh Black will take over the nose tackle spot as a redshirt junior. Black, who started four times last season at the nose, started nine games at defensive end as a freshman, but has bulked up and is one of the strongest players on the team. He has registered eight tackles for loss in his career.

Kenneth Ruff will be the likely starter at defensive tackle while Williams remains on the shelf. The senior has appeared in 32 games at Syracuse without a single start. Ruff notched a pair of sacks as part of his 4.5 tackles for loss last season.

Redshirt senior Shaq Grosvenor appeared on the two-deep entering fall camp at tackle and redshirt sophomore Curtis Harper will be next in line at getting a shot at seeing the field. Grosvenor has seen action in just five games and Harper made it on the field just once last season.

LINEBACKERS

For the second straight season, the linebacking corps enters the season as the least proven group on the defensive side of the ball. Last year, Ryan Guthrie and Kielan Whitner entered the season as unproven commodities at the position and responded by accumulating at least 100 tackles each. It remains to be seen if the team will get the same results this season.

Senior Andrew Armstrong has played in every game his three seasons on campus, starting against Pitt last season. Armstrong had 45 tackles and got his first interception last season, sealing the win over N.C. State.

Another senior, Lakiem Williams, has the inside track on the other starting slot. A junior college transfer, Williams saw most of his action last season on special teams.

» Related: Previewing the 2019 Syracuse offense

Sophomore Juan Wallace and freshman Mikel Jones entered fall camp as the backups on the depth chart. Wallace played in every game as a freshman on special teams. Ranked a top-25 outside linebacker recruit, Jones arrived on campus in January, logging a pair of tackles in the spring game. Redshirt sophomore Tyrell Richards may rotate in as a pass-rushing specialist, as well.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

This position group may have seen the greatest overhaul in Dino Babers’ time at Syracuse. The defensive back unit is the deepest on the squad, featuring seven players who have started for SU, five of them with at least ten career starts. The team will deploy five defensive backs frequently, making use of that great depth.

The starting cornerbacks coming out of spring practice were redshirt senior Christopher Fredrick and redshirt sophomore Ifeatu Melifonwu. Frederick has started the last 31 games at SU and played in every game his three active seasons, logging five interceptions and three fumble recoveries in his career. Melifonwu saw action in nine games last season, finishing second on the team with six pass breakups, including four against North Carolina.

Scoop Bradshaw has 21 starts in his career at SU, but will likely come off the bench at corner. The senior from Tampa has played in 34 of 37 games during his three seasons and has 6.5 tackles for loss and nine pass breakups in his career. Carl Jones is slotted in as the other reserve corner. He has been a special teams contributor all three of his seasons, appearing in every game in that time.

The starting safeties will be sophomore Andre Cisco and senior Evan Foster. Cisco made a big splash as a freshman, tying for the national lead with seven interceptions as he was named to a half dozen different All-American teams, becoming the first true freshman to be named an All-American at Syracuse. Named a preseason first team All-American by three media outlets coming into this season, Cisco had 60 tackles and 11 passes broken up as a freshman.

Foster has started every game the last two seasons in orange and finished third on the squad in tackles each season. The active leader on the roster in tackles, Foster has 158 stops on his resume and notched a pair of sacks last season to go with eight pass breakups.

Redshirt junior Devon Clarke and redshirt sophomore Eric Coley came out of spring ball listed as reserves at safety. Clarke has only played in three games at SU after suffering a season-ending injury last year. Coley appeared in six games last season, mostly as a reserve strong safety.

Sophomore Trill Williams is slotted to be the starting nickelback after starting four times and appearing in every game as a freshman. Williams showed a playmaking knack as a freshman, getting a pair of interceptions and scoring a touchdown on a blocked punt. Allen Stritzinger, a junior from Detroit who has appeared in 18 games and had an interception in the Camping World Bowl last season, is listed as Williams’ backup.

The wild card in the defensive backfield is Antwan Cordy. Cordy, who lost the bulk of the 2016 and 2017 seasons to injury, was granted a sixth season of eligibility. His 24 starts at SU have been spread over every position in the defensive backfield, including eight at nickelback last season. Cordy has 15 tackles for loss in his career to go with three sacks, three fumble recoveries, and three interceptions.

SPECIAL TEAMS OUTLOOK

The Orange had arguably the best special teams units in the nation last year and the primary contributors all return. Redshirt sophomore Andre Szmyt, a former walk-on, won the kicking job in preseason camp, earned a scholarship by the middle of October, and finished the season by winning the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker and being named a unanimous first team All-American. Szmyt made all 61 of his extra point attempts and connected on 30-of-34 field goals, leaving him one shy of the all-time single season NCAA mark.

Redshirt senior Sterling Hofrichter returns to handle the punting duties after being named to the All-ACC first team last season. Hofrichter’s consistency has been a large part of his success, as he has averaged between 42.7 and 43.2 yards per kick in his three campaigns and finished second in the conference last season in gross punting average while topping the ACC in net punting average.

Sean Riley paced the ACC and finished second nationally by averaging 16.4 yards on punt returns. Riley had a 69-yard punt return for a score against Connecticut and also blocked a punt in the Wagner game. The wideout also led the team with 18 kickoff returns, averaging 20.5 yards per attempt. Riley stands seventh in Syracuse history in all-purpose yards with 3,678. If he repeats his 2018 production, he will be only the second player in school history to crack the 5,000-yard plateau.

RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS (8): CB Scoop Bradshaw, FS Andre Cisco, DB Antwan Cordy, DE Kendall Coleman, SS Evan Foster, CB Christopher Fredrick, DE Alton Robinson, DT McKinley Williams

LEADING RETURNERS IN TACKLES: S Evan Foster – 86; FS Andre Cisco – 60; CB Christopher Fredrick – 56

LEADING RETURNERS IN SACKS: DE Kendall Coleman and DE Alton Robinson – ten each

LEADING RETURNERS IN INTERCEPTIONS: FS Andre Cisco – seven

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Jim Stechschulte
About Jim Stechschulte 561 Articles
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.