Defensive playmakers key to Syracuse football’s offense

Syracuse linebacker Lakiem Williams
Syracuse linebacker Lakiem Williams drops back in coverage against Pittsburgh. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

Sports are overrun with clichés and football often seems like the one with the most, whether about toughness, running the ball, or whatever was etched in stone by the first football coach before we even knew how to describe a football’s shape as “oblong.”

These phrases and sentences get their status because they have been proven to be true for at least some stretch of time. There are clichés about teamwork, but they tend to settle on things like “all 11 players have to do their job” and “we need to play well in all three phases.” Seldom do they hit on how those phases are intertwined. I’m going to focus on the two that spend the majority of the time on the field, offense and defense.

Sorry, special teams. I still love you.

In Babers’ four years as the head coach of the Orange, this seems like what his plan for how the offense and defense should work together looks like:

  1. Offense plays uptempo, looking to score quickly. Defense tries to keep everything in front of them and not give up big plays, forcing opponents to run more plays, increasing the sheer number of chances to make a mistake (penalty, sack, turnover, etc.).
  2. Offense gets the lead, ideally by multiple scores, forcing the opponent to play catch-up, subsequently discarding the run game and relying on the pass.
  3. Defense then looks to get pressure up front, generating the possibility of sacks and turnovers, whether fumbles caused by pressure or interceptions from ball-hawking, playmaking defensive backs.
  4. Offense turns up the heat by continuing to score, feeding back into the defensive pressure.

On paper, it looks great. And when you look at the stats and win-loss records of Babers’ four years on campus, including split under this past season’s different defensive coordinators, it looks pretty simple:

  • 2016 (Brian Ward) – 16 sacks, 9 fumbles, 10 interceptions in 12 games, 4-8 record
  • 2017 (Brian Ward) – 16 sacks, 8 fumbles, 4 interceptions in 12 games, 4-8 record
  • 2018 (Brian Ward) – 43 sacks, 13 fumbles, 18 interceptions in 13 games, 10-3 record
  • 2019 (Brian Ward) – 25 sacks, 9 fumbles, 7 interceptions in 9 games, 3-6 record
  • 2019 (Steve Stanard) – 5 sacks, 3 fumbles, 6 interceptions in 3 games, 2-1 record

Looks pretty cut and dried, and it should. It makes all the sense in the world that when your defense makes big impact plays, you win games. They put the opponent in bad situations with big plays or simply take the ball away.

Here is a breakdown of when the SU defense got each sack and turnover, based on the scoring margin at the time converted to possession difference measured in seven-point increments (i.e., 1-7 points is “one possession”, 8-14 points is “two possessions,” etc., save for allowing for two-point conversions in the fourth quarter, such as when counting a 28-20 lead over Boston College in fourth quarter in 2016 as a one-possession game).

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2016:

  • Behind by two or more possessions: 6 sacks, 6 fumbles, 2 interceptions
  • In a tie or one possession game: 7 sacks, 2 fumbles, 7 interceptions
  • Ahead by two or more possessions: 3 sacks, 1 fumble, 1 interception

2017:

  • Behind by two or more possessions: 3 sacks, 1 fumble, 1 interception
  • In a tie or one possession game: 11 sacks, 4 fumbles, 3 interceptions
  • Ahead by two or more possessions: 2 sacks, 3 fumbles

2018:

  • Behind by two or more possessions: 2 sacks, 1 interception
  • In a tie or one possession game: 19 sacks, 8 fumbles, 9 interceptions
  • Ahead by two or more possessions: 22 sacks, 5 fumbles, 8 interceptions

2019:

  • Behind by two or more possessions: 6 sacks, 5 interceptions
  • In a tie or one possession game: 7 sacks, 8 fumbles, 2 interceptions
  • Ahead by two or more possessions: 17 sacks, 4 fumbles, 6 interceptions

And to further split things up for this most recent season, here are the splits under the two different defensive leaders.

2019 (nine games under defensive coordinator Brian Ward):

  • Behind by two or more possessions: 6 sacks, 4 interceptions
  • In a tie or one possession game: 6 sacks, 6 fumbles, 1 interception
  • Ahead by two or more possessions: 13 sacks, 3 fumbles, 2 interceptions

2019 (three games under interim defensive coordinator Steve Stanard):

  • Behind by two or more possessions: 0 sacks, 1 interception
  • In a tie or one possession game: 1 sack, 2 fumbles, 1 interception
  • Ahead by two or more possessions: 4 sacks, 1 fumble, 4 interceptions

The 2016 and 2017 seasons do not provide a whole lot of usable data for two different reasons. The 2016 team was rarely ahead by two possessions (the lone interception came with an 8-point third quarter lead against Virginia Tech) and the 2017 team hardly forced any turnovers (only four turnovers – all fumbles – came after Sept 23 and one was when Eric Dungey ripped the ball away from a Miami defensive lineman) and was rarely in anything other than a dogfight.

The most noteworthy thing about the 2018 defense is that 34 of their 43 sacks came when SU held the lead. Six of the others came when the game was tied and five of those when the contest was scoreless. They also had 10 of their 13 fumbles and 16 of their 18 interceptions when in front.

Under Brian Ward, this year’s defensive unit could only bully lower level teams. Five fumbles, three interceptions, and 16 sacks came at the expense of Liberty, Western Michigan, and Holy Cross and of all those big plays, only an early fumble and interception against Liberty came when the game was tied.

At least when Steve Stanard was at the controls, the defense performed well against conference foes. Or, at least when Steve Stanard was at the controls, the defense had the lead against banged up Duke and Wake Forest teams. The Orange got an interception when trailing by 15 points against Louisville, but every other noteworthy play came against Duke and Wake with SU in front.

So, even in a down year overall, the defense still made impact plays with greater frequency when they had the lead. And that greater frequency gets to what really is noteworthy regarding how Babers wants his offense and defense to work hand-in-hand – the personnel that played significant roles for the defense in the last two seasons.

Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson each had ten sacks in 2018, then combined for 8.5 sacks (and 16 quarterback hits) this season. Kingsley Jonathan had 5.5 sacks in 2018 while Brandon Berry matched that number this season. Only Berry did not commit to SU during Babers’ tenure.

Taller defensive backs with playmaking ability have been a focus when it comes to recruiting under Babers. Andre Cisco, Ifeatu Melifonwu, and Trill Williams have shown they are big play contributors in their two seasons of play at Syracuse. Cisco has a dozen interceptions, Melifonwu has amassed 16 passes defensed, and Williams owns three picks, three forced fumbles, a fumble return for a touchdown, and blocked punt return for another score.

Even the junior college transfer linebackers who have led the team in tackles as seniors the last two seasons have been playmakers. Ryan Guthrie rolled up 16.5 tackles for loss in 2018, just behind Alton Robinson’s team-leading 17. Lakiem Williams paced the squad with 12.5 tackles for loss in 2019, including 4.5 sacks.

Unfortunately, Coleman, Robinson, Berry, and Lakiem Williams are all done at Syracuse. Jonathan and the three defensive backs are still around, but who will prove to join them?

Josh Black had four sacks as a defensive tackle this season. Hopefully, McKinley Williams’ return as a redshirt senior will tie up interior linemen and allow Black to continue to make plays. Can edge rusher Tyrell Richards (three sacks two years ago, one this season) develop into a consistent threat? Can Kingsley Jonathan produce as he did in 2018 instead of 2019 (1.5 sacks)?

It is clear that the defense is built around playmakers. The questions are if Babers and his staff can keep bringing them in, then develop them, and if his offense can keep putting them in advantageous positions.

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Jim Stechschulte
About Jim Stechschulte 634 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.