The summer has marked a veritable Syracuse sports desert. With no football or basketball to play, the attention has all but focused on men’s basketball recruiting efforts. There doesn’t appear to be another Justin Taylor walking through the door in the Class of ‘23, so it’s worth keeping your eye on what Dino Babers and company are doing with this year’s rendition of ‘Cuse football.
We spent most of last summer hand-wringing about how bad things were looking for the Orange. A lot of unknowns following a 1-10 year eventually fell into place to produce some competitive football, and our takes about a run-heavy offense (among others) did materialize. This time around, the questions are a little different, and the most pressing among them concern defensive coordinator Tony White’s 3-3-5 unit. New personnel across the defensive alignment provide some question marks, but those can be soothed by another consistent year from SU’s most promising position group: the secondary.
SU’s defense didn’t rank too badly in 2021 and eventually came to rest at 65th in the nation in points allowed per game. The figure ranked 6th in the ACC, but the Orange also ranked 4th in sacks with 37. Plenty of TFLs and sacks came from a rejuvenated defensive line that just said goodbye to all four of last year’s starters in Josh Black, McKinley Williams, Cody Roscoe, and Kingsley Jonathan.
With the loss of those four in mind, redshirt sophomore cornerback Garrett Williams’ decision to return to ‘Cuse instead of testing the NFL draft is major. Williams ranked as one of last year’s most important returning players, and had a solid season to again with 52 tackles and nine pass breakups that lead the ACC. On the other side, then-freshman Duce Chestnut burst onto the scene with an eight-tackle plus interception performance on opening day and helped solidify the unit, eventually hawking three interceptions. At year’s end, the pair bolstered last year’s defense that allowed just three teams to throw for over 200 yards. An extra season of experience for the duo can only help.
SU’s linebacking corps – Stefon Thompson, Mikel Jones, and Marlowe Wax – also return, meaning that the only defensive unit without much experience is a new-look defensive line. If the pass rush is shaky at times, it’ll be only that much more important for Williams and Chestnut to be on their game in coverage. Their ability to do so may go a long way in deciding what type of season the SU defense and entire team has.