Defense & Special Teams — 2022 Syracuse Football preview

Albany
Sep 18, 2021; Syracuse, New York, USA; Syracuse Orange defensive lineman Cody Roscoe (18) sacks Albany Great Danes quarterback Jeff Undercuffler (13) during the second half at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

DEFENSIVE LINE:

The defensive line will have a very fresh look this season, as it is going through almost a complete overhaul. Josh Black, Curtis Harper, Kingsley Jonathan, Cody Roscoe, and McKinley Williams are all gone, leaving Caleb Okechukwu as the most experienced player on the unit. Okechukwu had a pair of starts in 2021 and has appeared in every game in the last two seasons, logging 21 tackles and recovering a fumble last year. He will start at one defensive end spot.

Terry Lockett will line up next to Okechukwu on the inside of the defense’s 3-3-5 alignment. Lockett saw action in all but one game as a freshman last year as a rotational player at defensive tackle, logging 12 tackles and two sacks during the campaign. Kevon Darton, who recently earned a scholarship from the Orange program, will also be a part of the interior rotation. Darton had nine stops last season in limited action while appearing in all 12 games.

Beyond those three, the personnel on the defensive line are very, very raw. Jatius Geer played in only the Albany game last season, but is listed as the other starting defensive end. True freshman Dennis Jaquez Jr. and redshirt freshman Chase Simmons are the reserve defensive ends to start the campaign.

The long and lanky Steve Linton has seen some time at defensive end as a pass rusher, notching seven tackles and his first collegiate sack last season. Freshman Francois Nolton Jr. may also get a look. Listed by some recruiting services as a four-star prospect, Nolton had originally committed to Florida before changing direction and heading to Syracuse.

LINEBACKERS:

Despite the presence of Sean Tucker on offense, the linebackers are the strongest unit on the Orange roster. All three starters from last season – Mikel Jones, Stefon Thompson, and Marlowe Wax – return to their familiar roles for the upcoming campaign.

Jones became a full-blown star last season for Syracuse, leading the team with 110 stops and 13 tackles for loss. The tackle number was particularly noteworthy as it was an increase over the 107 tackles Jones amassed in his first two seasons combined. After opting to return to the Orange instead of declaring for the NFL draft, Jones was named to the watch lists for the Bednarik Award (defensive player of the year), Bronco Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player), and Butkus Award (best linebacker) for the coming season.

Thompson and Wax finished second and third on the team last season in tackles, piling up 139 tackles and 11 sacks as a duo. Having missed just one game in his two seasons, Thompson has 19 starts while Wax has played every game in his two campaigns, including starting every game last season.
An injury to any of the three starters would create an issue, as the reserve linebackers are all young and inexperienced. Only Leon Lowery, Derek McDonald, and Anwar Sparrow have seen the field at SU with Lowery’s five games and seven tackles being the most among the entire unit. Lowery and McDonald made the depth chart to start the season, joined by Austin Roon.

DEFENSIVE BACKS:

While the linebackers as a whole are the strongest unit on the SU roster, the star power continues in the defensive backfield, as the Orange boast one of the best units in the ACC with all five starters returning. Headlining the crew are possibly the best pair of cornerbacks in the ACC in Darian Chestnut and Garrett Williams.

Chestnut was named third team all-conference as a freshman last season, as well as being named to several Freshman All-American squads. Nicknamed “Duce”, Chestnut announced his presence last season with an interception and eight tackles in the season opener at Ohio. Chestnut would finish the season with three interceptions and eight pass break-ups.

Williams also earned All-ACC honors last season after leading the team and finishing second in the conference with ten pass break-ups, reaching that mark for the second straight season. A solid tackler, Williams finished fourth on the team in tackles last season with 52 stops, five of them coming for a loss.

Ja’Had Carter, a two-year starter, returns to fill one safety slot. Carter has 18 starts in two seasons on campus and surpassed the 100-tackle plateau for his career last season. Rutgers transfer Alijah Clark will pair up with Carter at safety. Clark appeared in seven games as a freshman for the Scarlet Knights, notching an interception and two pass breakups to go with six tackles.

Justin Barron appeared in every game last season, including earning a starting spot at rover for the last nine. A converted wide receiver, Barron logged 42 tackles and three pass break-ups last season.

There are multiple reserves with significant on-field experience supporting the starters. Jason Simmons Jr. transferred to the Orange from New Mexico State prior to last season, earned a starting role, and showed some play-making ability with an interception and a forced fumble to go with 41 tackles last season. Simmons suffered an injury in preseason camp and is working his way back.

Rob Hanna was nudged out of the starting lineup last season by Barron, but will back him up this time around. Hanna compiled 30 tackles last campaign, including notching his first collegiate sack. Louisville transfer Bralyn Oliver is listed as Clark’s backup at the other safety position.

Two other reserves have significant experience playing safety for the Orange, but did not make the two-deep to start the season. Eric Coley is the most experienced back-up, having appeared in 31 games in his career at Syracuse. Coley missed almost the entire 2020 season after suffering an injury in the season opener, but bounced back last season by tallying 26 tackles while playing in every game, including starting six.

Aman Greenwood has seen action in 20 games, including seven starts in 2020. He appeared in nine games last season, collecting ten stops.
With three years of experience at cornerback for Dartmouth, Isaiah Johnson joins the program as a transfer and will stay on the outside this season. Johnson totaled 55 stops last season for the Big Green, as well as seven pass break-ups and an interception. Opposite him on the depth chart is freshman cornerback Jeremiah Wilson. Wilson comes to SU as a three-star recruit from Osceola High School in Florida.

» Related: Previewing Syracuse football’s 2022 offense

SPECIAL TEAMS OUTLOOK:

Andre Szmyt has returned for one more season as the kicker for the Orange and looks to reverse a troubling trend. The Lou Groza Award winner as the nation’s best collegiate kicker following his first active season, Szmyt’s field goal percentage has slid every subsequent year, settling at 64.3 percent (9-for-14) last season. Szmyt had connected on at least 80 percent of his field goal attempts in the previous three seasons and is looking for a bounceback effort.

One of three different players to punt for SU last season, James Williams struggled in his first year. Williams punted in eight games, finishing with a 38.4 gross average, but did force ten fair catches and had nine of his 39 punts go inside the opponent’s 20-yard-line. Ian Hawkins punted 26 times last season for a 37.2-yard average. Also in the mix is Austrailan freshman Max von Marburg, who was offered a scholarship to join the program and is listed on the depth chart as the punter along with Williams.

Trebor Pena was the primary kick returner last season, averaging 24.8 yards on kickoff returns and 7.7 yards on punt returns. Pena had a 51-yard kickoff return last season after notching a 98-yard touchdown return in 2020. Courtney Jackson saw some action with both units, as well, including returning a punt 64 yards for a score against Boston College last season. Wide receiver D’Marcus Adams, a transfer from Florida Atlantic, averaged 23.6 yards per kickoff return for the Owls last season.

RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS (8): ROV Justin Barron, S Ja’Had Carter, CB Darian “Duce” Chestnut, LB Mikel Jones, S Jason Simmons Jr., LB Stefon Thompson, LB Marlowe Wax, CB Garrett Williams

LEADING RETURNERS IN TACKLES: Mikel Jones – 110, Stefon Thompson – 79, Marlowe Wax – 60, Garrett Williams – 52

LEADING RETURNERS IN SACKS: Stefon Thompson – six, Marlowe Wax– five, Mikel Jones – four

LEADING RETURNERS IN INTERCEPTIONS: Darian Chestnut – three

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About Jim Stechschulte 858 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. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. He currently resides in Syracuse.