Syracuse football’s new 3-3-5 defense calls for playmaking DBs

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Syracuse defensive backs Andre Cisco (19) and Scoop Bradshaw (18) celebrate an incomplete pass. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

Sunday’s verbal commitment from four-star defensive back Duce Chestnut will hopefully be a sign of things to come for the Syracuse football team. The team’s offseason overhaul on defense, headlined by a switch for the 3-3-5 defense, should lead to an emphasis on defensive backs in recruiting.

The defensive backfield will not be the only place where recruiting targets are a little different. The switch will result in a greater emphasis on size in the first two levels of defense, particularly among the linebacking corps. While the defense in previous years was willing to trade off a little bit of size in exchange for greater speed on the second level, now those linebackers need to be bigger to fend of blocks with one fewer lineman in front of them to take the heat.

The defensive backs, however, will have a different emphasis. By playing five of them on every down, they will likely have the greatest numbers of any defensive unit. While bigger players have already been a target to provide greater length for coverage and size for run support, these supersized defensive backs will also be looked upon to provide impact plays in the new scheme.

The hallmark of the 3-3-5 is the flexibility provided by its defensive backs. The defense has multiple blitz options, ranging to seven or even eight pass rushers, but also can feature just as many players, if not more, dropping into coverage. It increases the defense’s speed and most players will know their assignment when the play is called, enabling them to just play instead of think about what the offense is doing and responding accordingly.

The defensive backs will be deployed aggressively in different ways, looking for big plays. San Diego State is a useful source material for the defense, as they have run the 3-3-5 for years. Defensive coordinator Tony White joins the SU program after being entrenched in the 3-3-5 with the Aztecs, then running the same the last two seasons at Arizona State.

Normally, “stat-sheet stuffers” is a term used to describe multi-skilled basketball players. Last season, defensive backs at SDSU were stat-sheet stuffers. Tackles in the backfield, forced fumbles, pass break-ups, interceptions… they did it all.

Seven different Aztec defensive backs logged a tackle for loss with five having three or more, including cornerback Luq Barcoo being credited with five tackles for loss. If you think Barcoo was penetrating the backfield because he was a coverage liability, think again. Barcoo also broke up 16 passes and tallied nine interceptions en route to appearing on several All-American teams.

Those Aztec defensive backs also had four quarterback sacks as a group, complied 15 interceptions, tallied six of the team’s nine forced fumbles, and had seven of their nine fumble recoveries in 2019.

It is not a one-year fluke, either. In 2018, three Aztec defensive backs had at least four tackles for loss while the unit logged four of the team’s five forced fumbles and five of seven recoveries. In the two seasons combined, Tariq Thompson had eight tackles for loss, 16 pass breakups, six interceptions, four forced fumbles and four recoveries.

» Related: Breaking down Syracuse’s 2020 linebackers

While their numbers are not as gaudy as San Diego State’s, White’s Arizona State defensive backfield had five different players notch at least two tackles for loss and a half dozen of them recovered a fumble in 2019.

The trend is clear, though. Defensive backs in the 3-3-5 play a much more versatile, aggressive style. That should change the production in the defensive backfield for the Orange, as only two backs recorded a sack last season and only a pair had at least two tackles for loss.

However, the Orange already have several playmakers in their secondary. Andre Cisco had five picks, broke up five other passes, and forced and recovered a fumble. Ifeatu Melifonwu had eight pass breakups, two interceptions, and a tackle for loss. Trill Williams forced three fumbles and had a pair of quarterback hits.

Those players should only see their number of big plays increase in the new defense as they have new responsibilities. Or, as they probably see it, opportunities.

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Jim Stechschulte
About Jim Stechschulte 648 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.