Defense & Special Teams — 2020 Syracuse Football preview

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Syracuse's defense makes a tackle against North Carolina. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Josh Black is the lone returning starter on the defensive front line. A redshirt senior, Black compiled 39 tackles and four sacks last season, starting every game at nose tackle. With the change of alignment to the 3-3-5, Black will slip outside to defensive end, a position where he started nine times as a freshman.

McKinley Williams’ return from injury is the force behind Black’s move to the outside. Williams returned from injury last season to play in SU’s last three games, enabling him to redshirt and return for a fifth season. A run-stuffer who owns ten tackles for loss in his career, Williams will start at nose tackle.

Senior Kingsley Jonathan, who has appeared in every game the last two seasons, is expected to be the other starter at defensive end and top pass rusher. Jonathan has 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in his career.

Cody Roscoe, a senior and two-year starter at McNeese State who was granted immediate eligibility as a transfer, is slated to back up Black on the line. Roscoe has 16 sacks in his career, including nine last season. Redshirt sophomore Caleb Okechukwu is the other reserve defensive end. Okechukwu is yet to play for SU.

Curtis Harper, a redshirt junior, appeared in 11 contests last season and collected a pair of sacks. He will rotate in at nose tackle as a reserve.

LINEBACKERS

Linebacker is a position group with fairly minimal experience. The ringleader, should any player qualify for that title, is Mikel Jones. Jones started four times as a freshman last year, and logged 38 tackles while playing in all 12 games. Jones also bulked up over the offseason in preparation for the defensive scheme shift, bumping his weight from 211 pounds up to 230. That number may be the most impressive and important for Jones heading into the 2020 season.

Sophomore Geoff Cantin-Arku was atop the depth chart in spring at middle linebacker and kept that spot through summer camp. The Canadian import played in nine games as a freshman, primarily on special teams. Lee Kpogba, who is set to back up Cantin-Arku, appeared in 11 games last season as a freshman. Kpogba’s playing time also came primarily on special teams.

True freshman Stefon Thompson, who enrolled at SU in January, has earned the third starting linebacker spot for the opener. Thompson had 162 tackles as a senior at Vance High School in Charlotte, N.C.

Steve Linton was redshirted last year, his true freshman season, while appearing in three games. Linton, who shifted to the linebacker corps after playing defensive end in high school, is a long, lanky player at 6’5” and 224 pounds. That combination suggests he has a chance to contribute to the pass rush and he is listed behind Thompson, so perhaps a third-down role is in the cards for Linton.

Redshirt junior Tyrell Richards, who has been primarily a pass rush specialist and special teams player, notched a start against Pittsburgh last season. Having appeared in ten games last season and with four sacks in his career, Richards is expected to be a contributor, but did not appear on the opening depth chart. Just before the season was set to start, it was reported that Richards had been arrested over the summer and was being disciplined by the football program and athletic department.

» Related: Previewing Syracuse’s 2020 offense

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The backfield is the defensive level where SU has the most talent. Headlining the unit is junior Andre Cisco, who was voted a pre-season All-American by multiple outlets and leads all active college players with 12 interceptions. In only nine games, Cisco posted five picks last season, returning one against Duke for a touchdown. He is listed at “rover”, the fifth defensive back in the 3-3-5 alignment.

Junior Trill Williams, who moved between safety and cornerback last season, but is now the starter at free safety, is the other elite playmaker in the defensive backfield. Williams forced three fumbles, returned a fumble 94 yards for a touchdown against Wake Forest, and grabbed an interception last season. That fumble recovery score was the second of Williams’ career, as he returned a blocked punt for a score as a freshman.

Redshirt junior Ifeatu Melifonwu is the top cornerback on the squad. Melifonwu paced the team with ten passes defended last season, including snaring a pair of interceptions. The 6’3” corner also posted one of the top rates in the ACC in completion percentage allowed, allowing opponents to complete just 37% of their attempts as the primary defender.

Eric Coley appeared in every game as a redshirt sophomore last year, compiling 48 tackles as the main backup at safety. Coley has been promoted to the starting lineup at safety, making SU’s defensive backfield one of the most experienced in the ACC.

The fifth starter and key reserves will come from a slew of young players, led by Garrett Williams, who was named the other starter at cornerback to begin the season. Williams appeared in four games last season, all coming on special teams alone, so he will get his feet wet on defense this season. Neil Nunn, who came to the Orange as a highly-touted defensive back from Miami Palmetto High in Florida and can play either corner or safety, will support Garrett Williams at the corner.

Redshirt sophomore Cam Jonas is yet to appear on the field at Syracuse, but is listed behind Coley. Jonas has not played in three seasons, as he missed his senior year in high school due to a torn ACL, but is hopeful to break that streak in 2020.

Redshirt freshman Aman Greenwood is set as the reserve free safety and true freshmen Ben Labrosse (rover) and Chase Atkinson (cornerback) complete the two-deep.

RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS (4): DE Josh Black, FS Andre Cisco, CB Ifeatu Melifonwu, DB Trill Williams

LEADING RETURNERS IN TACKLES: FS Andre Cisco – 65; Eric Coley – 48; Josh Black – 39; Mikel Jones – 38

LEADING RETURNERS IN SACKS: Josh Black – four, Curtis Harper – two

LEADING RETURNERS IN INTERCEPTIONS: Andre Cisco – five, Ifeatu Melifonwu – two

SPECIAL TEAMS OUTLOOK

Andre Szmyt returns to handle placekicking duties for the third season. The redshirt junior was outstanding in 2019, connecting on 17-of-20 field goals and 39-of-40 extra points. Szmyt has missed just one of 101 extra point attempts and has made 87 percent of his field goal attempts in two seasons of play. He stands seventh in school history in points scored, fifth among kickers.

With Sterling Hofrichter drafted by the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, the Orange will turn to a new punter, either Nolan Cooney of James Williams. Cooney, a redshirt senior, has been anointed the first choice, but neither he nor Williams, a true freshman, has kicked in a game for SU.

Kickoff and punt returns should be handled by a committee featuring wide receiver Nykeim Johnson, running back Jawhar Jordan, and defensive back Trill Williams. Johnson is expected to start the season in both roles after seeing some time in both last season and Jordan returned four kickoffs for a gaudy 28.5-yard average in his limited time on the active roster.

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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.