Position Breakdown: Secondary — 2020 Syracuse Football preview

Syracuse Orange defensive back Scoop Bradshaw
Sept. 21 2019; Syracuse NY, USA; Syracuse Orange defensive back Scoop Bradshaw (18) defends against Western Michigan Broncos wide receiver DaShon Bussell (81) during Syracuse's 52-33 at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Initra Marilyn, The Juice Online.

As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a unit-by-unit preview each week over the summer. This week, we’re taking a look at the secondary, which will return plenty of talent, but also loses two starters.

WHO’S OUT

Syracuse lost plenty of experience and depth from 2019, with seven contributing players (Scoop Bradshaw, Antwan Cordy, Christopher Fredrick, Evan Foster, DuWayne Johnson, Carl Jones, and Kyle Strickland) all graduated. Cordy used a rare sixth year of eligibility, having been granted multiple waivers from the NCAA because of injury issues during his career, and was one of the final links to the Scott Shafer era. Bradshaw, Cordy, Fredrick and Foster were starters at one time or another in their SU careers.

The Orange also lost Allen Stritzinger, who put his name into the transfer portal. In 29 games as a reserve defensive back, he recorded 27 tackles and four passes defended. Stritzinger has one year of graduate transfer eligibility left, and likely left because he was listed as the backup rover to Coley on the spring depth chart.

PROJECTED STARTERS

  • Trill Williams (CB): Williams made the final play of the 2019 season for Syracuse, ripping a ball away from a Wake Forest wide receiver for the game-winning 94-yard touchdown. He finished with 38 tackles last season as the primary nickelback.
  • Andre Cisco (BS): Syracuse is adding a third safety in its new defense, which means that monikers like “free” and “strong” safety no longer apply. Cisco is now the ‘Boundary Safety,’ charged not only with coverage, but also with run support. A year after he was an All-American, Cisco was a 2019 All-ACC Second Team selection as a sophomore, and is the active FBS leader in interceptions (12).
  • Eric Coley (ROV): Coley was the primary backup at both safety positions last year, and finished fifth on the team in tackles. He was listed atop the depth chart at the rover position, a hybrid between a linebacker and safety.
  • Smurph Greenwood (FS): The position is called “Field Safety,” and will be a position battle heading into summer camp. Greenwood and Neil Nunn (more on him below) are two freshmen coming off their redshirt year that are the front runners for the starting job. Greenwood appeared in one game in his redshirt year.
  • Ifeatu Melifonwu (CB): Melifonwu tied for SU’s team lead last season with 10 passes defended, and returns as the team’s starting cornerback. He’s made 18 starts so far as a redshirt junior.

WHO’S BACKING THEM UP

  • Cam Jonas: The third-year safety hasn’t played a college snap yet, but was listed as the backup to Cisco on the spring depth chart. He was ranked the 29th safety in his class by ESPN.
  • Garrett Williams: Williams is listed as the primary backup to Williams at cornerback. He appeared in four games in his redshirt season on special teams. The North Carolina native was a three-star recruit in high school.
  • Neil Nunn: Nunn was one of Syracuse’s top signees in the 2019 class, ranked 307th overall by 247 Sports. The highly-touted Nunn was one of Florida’s top players, and has the versatility to play safety or corner. He and Greenwood will battle for the starting position.
  • Adrian Cole: Cole appeared in two games as a redshirt, and is listed as the backup to Melifonwu. The former three-star prospect played high school ball at Plantation (Fla.).
  • Devon Clarke: The redshirt senior has been primarily a reserve safety and special teams player in his four years on campus. He switched to cornerback in 2020, and in 11 games, he’s recorded six tackles and a pass breakup.

» Related: Breaking down Syracuse’s 2020 linebackers

WHO’S JOINING

  • Robert Hanna: Hanna was one of Syracuse’s top recruits in the 2020 class, ranked as the No. 56 safety in the country by 247 Sports. The Miami native recorded 36 tackles, one sack and one interception as a safety and linebacker.
  • Ben LaBrosse: Syracuse continued its Canadian pipeline, signing the No. 2 prospect in Quebec. The three-star defensive back could potentially be underrated as Canadian players aren’t scouted as heavily.
  • Chase Atkinson: Syracuse tapped into the South Carolina market to nab the No. 37 prospect in the state and 136th rated safety in the class of 2020 according to 247 Sports.

ANALYSIS

Syracuse’s secondary took a large step back in 2019, allowing 262.5 yards per game through the air (110th in the country), while surrendering 400 or more yards in four different games.

Heading into 2020, they’re losing starters Foster and Fredrick, and a wealth of experience with Cordy and Bradshaw also departed. On top of that, Syracuse is switching to a 3-3-5 defense under new coordinator Tony White, which requires a third safety on the field that will be learning his position as he goes.

But that doesn’t mean that Syracuse’s secondary is doomed. For starters, SU returns one of its best defensive backs in history in Cisco. He missed three games with injuries, and was playing hurt in others, yet still managed to earn Second Team All-ACC Honors while leading the conference in interceptions (5).

The Orange also returns plenty of talent and experience with Melifonwu and Williams at the corners. Coley is being groomed as the successor to Cisco, and Nunn was one of SU’s top signees from 2019, with the opportunity to grow into the field safety role that should maximize his skill set.

Last year’s secondary suffered from giving up too many big plays, while also struggling to aid in stopping the run. The 3-3-5 defense should allow the secondary to get even more aggressive, while giving hawking players like Cisco the chance to make run-stopping plays.

If Greenwood/Nunn and Coley can grow into their roles quickly, the talent is there for Syracuse’s secondary to once again become a dominant force like they were in 2018.

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Wes Cheng
About Wes Cheng 2580 Articles
Wes has worked for Rivals.com covering the New York Knicks, as well as for Scout.com covering Syracuse athletics. Wes has also worked for the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) and reported on the NBA and MLB for the New York Sportscene. A native of Long Island, New York, Wes graduated from Syracuse University in 2005. Follow him on Twitter @ChengWes.