Defense — 2021 Syracuse Football preview

Clemson Syracuse Football
Clemson running back Travis Etienne (9) is tackled by Syracuse linebacker Geoff Cantin-Arku (31) and Syracuse defensive back Rob Hanna(19) during their game, Oct 24, 2020; Clemson, South Carolina, USA; at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

DEFENSIVE LINE:

Six of the defensive line’s seven biggest contributors return from last season’s unit. McKinley Williams returns at nose tackle to anchor the front line of the 3-3-5. Williams has 20 starts in his career, including all of last season on the nose, and led last year’s squad with eight tackles for loss. Unfortunately, Williams has missed all of training camp with an illness, but still was listed as the starter on the opening day depth chart.

Josh Black has 36 starts at SU, including every game in the last two seasons and capably handled the switch from defensive tackle in the previous alignment to defensive end last season. He has logged ten tackles for loss in the last two seasons and 18 in his career.

Black’s opposite number will be Kingsley Jonathan, who has played in 44 games at Syracuse and was honored last season by the ACC as the Jim Tatum Award winner, which goes to the top senior football student-athlete in the conference. Jonathan tied for second on the team with three sacks and has 10.5 in his career.

Cody Roscoe joined the Syracuse program last season as a transfer from McNeese State and was an instant contributor, finishing in a tie for third on the squad with six tackles for loss as a rotational defensive end. Roscoe also had a pair of sacks to go with three quarterback hits and figures to see action in pass rush situations again.

Curtis Harper has been a reserve at tackle the last two seasons and will see action there again. He is the likely starter at nose if Williams is not ready for the beginning of the season. Caleb Okechukwu logged his first sack last season and should see time at defensive end.

LINEBACKERS:

Last year’s second line of defense was very light on experience coming into the season, but finished the campaign looking like a future strength. Mikel Jones was a playmaker in every sense of the word, leading all linebackers nationally and all ACC players with four interceptions. He also led the Orange with 69 tackles, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and five quarterback hits.

Stefon Thompson started seven times as a freshman last season and was just the fourth freshman to start his first game at Syracuse in the last decade. Thompson ended the season second on the team in tackles for loss with 7.5, three of them coming as sacks.

Marlowe Wax played in every game last season as a freshman, including one start, and earned a spot in the lineup this fall. Wax had three sacks among his 5.5 tackles for loss, finishing in the top six on the team in each statistic.

Geoff Cantin-Arku was a first-time starter last season, getting the honor ten times, and paid immediate dividends. Cantin-Arku paced the team with four sacks and finished fourth on the team in tackles. The sophomore also forced a fumble last season, which he recovered and returned 28 yards for a touchdown against Duke. He is listed to back up Wax on the depth chart and seems like a strong pass-rushing option.

The group is very shallow beyond that top four, as Steve Linton and Leon Lowery are the only other linebackers on the roster to see playing time. While listed as a defensive end, Linton played in eight games last season, including starting once at linebacker, and logged 15 tackles. Lowery had five tackles in three appearances last season as a freshman.

DEFENSIVE BACKS:

Normally, having three defensive backs declare for the draft is a bad thing. Andre Cisco and Ifeatu Melifonwu were drafted and Trill Williams signed as a free agent, meaning a lot of talent left the secondary. That said, those departures could have been worse for the remaining Orange defensive backs, as Cisco and Williams were injured for most of last season, paving the way for some of their successors to get onto the field.

One of those successors was on the field before those injuries, as redshirt freshman cornerback Garrett Williams earned a starting spot last season. Williams belonged from the start, finishing the season atop the team in solo tackles with 54 and in pass breakups with ten. In addition, Williams added three tackles for loss, including a sack, and a pick-six against Clemson.

Joining Williams in the lineup at cornerback is Darian “Duce” Chestnut, a three-star freshman from Camden, NJ. One of the top recruits in SU’s incoming class, Chestnut looks like a potential impact player out of the gate.

The safeties and roverback positions will draw from a deeper pool of young, but experienced players. Freshman Ja’Had Carter stepped into one of the safety spots last season, starting the final ten games, and is slated to stay in the lineup this season. Carter ended up second on the team in tackles with 67 and added a pair of interceptions.

The returning roverback is freshman Rob Hanna, who was thrust to the starting lineup for the final nine games of the season. Hanna had 55 tackles on the season, including a dozen stops along with a fumble recovery against Duke.

Ben Labrosse has earned the final starting spot in the backfield at the other safety spot. He spent his freshman season as a reserve, but earned a significant role on special teams, finishing the season with 11 stops in limited play.

Like Carter and Hanna, Aman Greenwood was promoted into the lineup after the season got underway, starting at safety in seven of his ten appearances. The redshirt freshman showed a knack in pass coverage, finishing with four pass breakups, and is slotted to back up Williams at corner.

In addition, one defensive back who was injured last season is returning to the Orange. Eric Coley played safety previously, including appearing in all 12 games and piling up 48 tackles in the 2019 campaign. Coley was lost for the 2020 season after suffering an injury in the season opener.

» Related: An in-depth preview of Syracuse football’s offense in 2021

SU is also adding a transfer with experience at safety into the mix, as Jason Simmons joined the program after playing in 2019 as a freshman at New Mexico State. Simmons appeared in 11 games for the Aggies, including eight starts, logging 62 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss in that time. Simmons will join Coley is a reserve role at safety to start the campaign.

Adrian Cole, Neil Nunn, and Justin Barron should be in the mix for an increased role as depth in the defensive backfield. All three players saw modest action in 2020, including on special teams.

  • RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS (10): DE Josh Black, LB Geoff Cantin-Arku, DB Ja’Had Carter, DB Aman Greenwood, DB Rob Hanna, DE Kingsley Jonathan, LB Mikel Jones, LB Stefon Thompson, CB Garrett Williams, DT McKinley Williams
  • LEADING RETURNERS IN TACKLES: Mikel Jones – 69, Ja’Had Carter – 67, Garrett Williams – 64, Geoff Cantin-Arku – 63
  • LEADING RETURNERS IN SACKS: Geoff Cantin-Arku – four, Kingsley Jonathan, Stefon Thompson, Marlowe Wax– three
  • LEADING RETURNERS IN INTERCEPTIONS: Mikel Jones – four, Ja’Had Carter, Garrett Williams – two

SPECIAL TEAMS OUTLOOK:

Andre Szmyt is back for his fourth season of placekicking for the Orange and is on the Lou Groza Watch List for the third time after winning the award as a freshman. Szmyt has connected on at least 80 percent of his field goals in each of his three seasons and has made 86.2 percent (56-of-65) of his field goal attempts at SU.

With 50 points last season, Szmyt has 291 in his career, good for fourth place all-time in program history and 43 behind Nate Trout for the top of the leaderboard. Szmyt is also four field goals away from sole possession of that team record.

James Williams will take over as the punter this season. Williams did not play as a freshman last season, but was a top-ten kicking recruit in his class.

Wide receiver Trebor Pena, who had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown last season, will likely handle that responsibility on a full-time basis this season. Pena is the only player on the current roster to return either a kickoff or punt last season. Courtney Jackson also worked in camp on both return units.

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About Jim Stechschulte 714 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.