Then and Now - football - Part 7 | Syracusefan.com

Then and Now - football - Part 7

SWC75

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(What is in italics I wrote in August as part of my football preview. What is not I'm writing now.)

Defensive Backs
Seniors: none
Juniors: Eric Coley 6-2 200 (was 206)
Sophomores: A. J. Calabro 5-10 195 (was 197), Jason Simmons 6-0 195, John Sweetwood 6-0 175 (was 176)
Freshmen: Chase Atkinson 5-11 190 (was 180), Justin Barron 6-4 215, Ja’Had Carter 6-2 200 (was 191), Darian, “Duce” Chestnut 6-0 195, Adrian Cole 5-11 185 (was 5-10 171), Malcolm Folk 6-1 200, Aman Greenwood 5-10 185 (was 180); Rob Hanna 6-0 170 (was 168), Ben Labrosse 6-2 200, Clay Masters 5-11 175, Corneilius (Neil) Nunn 6-0 190 (was 183), Tommy Porter 5-11 190, Cam Reirden 6-0 185, Garrett Williams 6-0 190, (was 5-11 184)


The big thing on the above listing is the “None” next to seniors – and the one junior, Eric Coley, listed. Losing three guys to the NFL made this unit the youngest on the team and they sometimes showed it. But still they were part of a defense that finished 22nd in the country, (of 130 teams in FBS) in total defense, giving up only 330 yards per game. We were 28th against the run, (125ypg), and 29th against the pass, (204ypg). Despite this we were only 69th in scoring defense at 26 points per game. That was primarily due to two factors: an unproductive offense and punting game that gave the defense too little real estate to defend and the lack of turnovers, (7 compared to 80 in the previous three years). Dino Babers’ prescription for this was for the defensive backfield to grow up. They now have to be considered a veteran unit that will have to hold together while the defensive line grows up.

Coley came in with Cisco, Melifonwu and Williams and I felt that he would be on their level. He’s the son of Vinson Reynolds, Baber’s defensive tackle coach. He enrolled at Fayetteville-Manlius High School and ran through local defenses like they weren’t there, averaging 10 yards a carry. I hoped he would have the ball in his hands at SU, at least return kicks but he’s been strictly a d-back. He’s been held back by injuries. Because of the Covid rule, he’s still a junior so he has two years to prove himself if he can stay healthy. Nunes: “With all the youth in Syracuse’s defensive backs, Coley is the veteran presence that will keep that group anchored. He was one of the three safeties (Andre Cisco and Trill Williams being the others) that knows exactly what Tony White wants in the 3-3-5, so expect him to be the leader of the secondary…. While there was a lot of focus on the Cisco and Trill absences last year, another big one was the experienced Coley at safety and/or rover. He tallied four tackles in game one vs. UNC before his season-ending injury but had 48 stops in 2019 despite just one start that year. There’s a good chance he’s SU’s starting rover this season, and I’d contend having him back is a much bigger addition than you’d think on paper.”

It's become apparent that Coley is not on the level of the three NFL guys he came in with. He’s still on the roster but one wonders if that might change as his father had been fired by Babers. He managed to play all 12 games after an injury-plagued career. He made 26 tackles from his safety position and had 3 pass break-ups. He had no interceptions or forced fumbles. But he’s the most experienced player in our secondary and it would be good to have him back.

Simmons, per SI: “was one of the most coveted defensive back prospects in the transfer portal and comes to Syracuse from New Mexico State. He did not play in 2020 as NMSU cancelled the season due to the pandemic. Simmons can play corner or safety and should fill into one of the spots vacated by players who left for the NFL.” In 2019, he “finished the year tied for sixth on the team with 62 tackles (42 solo) ... Racked up 4.5 tackles for loss, tying for fifth most on the Aggies ... Broke up three passes, forced one fumble and had a fumble recovery.” Nunes: “The heavy-hitter joins Syracuse from New Mexico State…Simmons comes from an athletic family. He was a three-star recruit coming out of Lancaster, Texas.”

Simmons played in 11 games and played well. He had 41 tackles, including a couple for a loss, an interception and a forced fumble. He’ll no doubt have a big role next year.

Atkinson is a 3-star from South Carolina. He was injured during his senior year in high school, which may have set him back compared to other d-backs in his recruiting class. He played in one game last year, getting an assisted tackle vs. Notre Dame. Nunes: “The Syracuse Orange secondary is set at the starting spots, but depth is a concern. Atkinson could earn time in passing situations or on special teams…. he has the size to be able to jump right in to contribute for ‘Cuse — especially with only so many scholarship players that are really natural fits at corner.”

Atkinson recorded no stats this year but, as a 3 star he should be able to compete for time in the future. I’m still not sure I like the name “Chase” for a defensive back but he’ll be chasing receivers elsewhere, as he’s entered the transfer portal. He may be one of those guys for whom this is a good sign for us: a 3 star doesn’t think he can compete with the other guys we’ve got here.

Barron started out as a wide-receiver but was switched to the defensive backfield due to all the injuries there and the decision was made to keep him there. He’s a 3-star, (aren’t they all if they come here?) from Connecticut. Nunes: “Barron’s played a lot of different positions over the last few years. After coming in as a possible defensive end, he wound up a wide receiver and then played some defensive back over the final few games of 2020. At 6-foot-4, his best fit is at safety. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s utilized.” SI: “Barron is transitioning from wide receiver to defensive back. He is extremely athletic and very long.” I would think that he could also help at linebacker if needed.

Barron played in all 12 games, had 42 tackles, a TFL, a pass break-up and QB hurry. At 6-4 215, he gives us plenty of thump at the rover position.

Carter is the sort of big, strong, (6-2 200), defensive back you need to combat the type of big, strong receivers everybody, (including us) wants. Cuse.com: “Played in all-11 games, starting the last 10 at safety … Led all SU defensive backs with 67 tackles and was second on the team in total … Seventh most tackles by an ACC defensive back … Also had 3.0 tackles for loss, two interceptions, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery on the season.” Nunes: “With a year under his belt, you could see Carter take some leaps forward in year two. He’s a likely starter at safety once again and last year’s experience for the entire secondary should pay some dividends despite their relative youth.” SI: “A nose for the football may be an understatement in the case of Ja’Had Carter. The hard-hitting safety is heading into his second year with the Orange with intentions of setting the tone on defense. … As a safety, Carter is football savvy and situationally aware, as he caught an interception last year and before he got tackled he lateraled it back to Trill Williams which resulted in a touchdown. Syracuse is heavily relying on Carter to set the tone and bring more explosive plays to the defensive side of the ball this season.”

Carter battled Coley for playing time and also injuries that limited him to 8 games in which he 35 tackles and one pass break-up. He’ll be another veteran in what will be a deep secondary next year.

Chestnut comes in advertised as “our highest rated recruit in 10 years”. I’m not sure about that but he seems to have that ‘star quality’ we need to replace the guys we’ll see on Sundays this fall. Cuse.com: “Had three interceptions this fall in his senior season and has 13 career special teams touchdowns.” The interception totals are low because of an abbreviated 5 game season but 13 special teams touchdowns are certainly an eye-opener. Nunes: “He tallied 118 career tackles and 10 career interceptions in 31 games at Camden High School…It may be sooner rather than later before we see Chestnut’s true potential on the field. He’s already been rumored to impress the coaching staff in his first spring ball as a true freshman. Enrolling early has definitely given Chestnut a boost up the depth chart as the coaches figure where to play him. He could easily fit in at corner, safety, or even the all-important rover position. Either way, while he may not start right away, don’t be surprised if the true freshman is on the two-deep come week one.”

Chestnut came as advertised, dominating the opening game against Ohio U., with 8 tackles, including a TFL, a pass break-up and a clinching interception. A star was born. Duce got burned a few times but continued to make big plays, including the pick in the final game against Pitt that was our first takeover in 6 games. He wound up with 43 tackles, (as a cornerback), 8 pass break-ups and 3 interceptions, which represented 43% of our takeovers for the year. His star is just going to burn brighter and brighter.

Cole is a 3-star from Florida who played in 2 games in 2019 and 5 last year. Nunes: “Unlike Atkinson, Cole did see the field a bit last year, appearing in five games and recording 10 tackles during those contests. Injuries might have cleared the way for playing time, but he did make the most of things and had a couple “bigger’ games, including five stops vs. Louisville and four vs. Notre Dame. He’ll be right in the thick of the starting corner competition during camp.”

Cole played in 9 games backing up Garrett Williams and had 17 tackles and 3 pass break-ups. He’ll be doing that for somebody else as he’s hit the transfer portal.

Folk is a 3-star true freshman from Pennsylvania. Cuse.com: “108 career tackles, three interceptions, 1,565 all-purpose yards and 14 touchdowns in his high school career at Episcopal Academy, despite not playing a senior season.” Nunes: “The fact that Folk’s on campus already gives him a leg up toward getting on the two-deep at safety, but it won’t be easy given how many guys return after seeing the field last year for the Syracuse Orange. Even if he’s not a frequent contributor, though, he’s likely worked in while avoiding burning the redshirt… Folk could be a bit of a diamond in the rough after not getting a chance to play during his senior season. But before that, he was a two-way playmaker, and one that can now plug into this defense and perhaps make an immediate difference. Granted, it won’t be easy to crack though the depth chart above. If we know anything about how Tony White uses defensive backs in this scheme, though, he seems willing to rotate in a lot of bodies.”

Folk recorded no numbers in 2021, despite his leg up. But he could be a name you’ll hear in the future.

Greenwood is a 3-star from DC. Cuse.com: “Appeared in 10 games, starting the final-seven games of the season at safety … Made 18 tackles and had four pass breakups on the year.” Nunes: “You should plan to see a lot of Greenwood at safety once again, likely returning to the free safety spot he occupied for the majority of last season. Looking at PFF data from 2020, he’s the third-highest rated returning defensive back in coverage for Syracuse…. While it wasn’t great to lose someone like Cisco, his absence also created new opportunities for players like Greenwood — who played in 10 contests and started during the final seven. He had 18 tackles and four pass break-ups on the year. And though he was “only” the eight-ranked Orange defender in coverage in 2020 according to PFF, he was one of many SU players to score above a 75 in tackling ability. He’s a likely starter at free safety.” I was unable to verify if Aman was the 3rd or 8th ranked pass defender in the SU secondary. I suspect if the was the 8th he would not have played as much.

Greenwood, nickname “Smurf”, is smallish for a safety at 5-10 185. He played in 9 games and had 10 tackles, 1 for a loss.

Hanna is a 3-star from Miami who made some good plays last year when pressed into service until, he, too, got banged up, although he continued to play. Nunes: “Filled in the huge shoes of Andre Cisco in the starting lineup after his unfortunate injury. Starting the last nine games, he racked up 55 tackles, 2 tackles-for-loss and an interception. It was thought that he would be packing on the pounds in the offseason, and instead lost two pounds. That puts him on the lighter side of safeties and could be used more in a pass setup compared to run support…. In year one, he certainly took some risks and has some progress to make, but that’s also to be expected.”

Hanna was part of the mix in 2021 but not a name I heard very much. He had 30 tackles in 11 games but no other stats. He’ll be another veteran player next season.

Labrosse is a 3-star from Quebec. He was given that 3 -star after committing to Syracuse, indicating that the scouting services consider a Syracuse guy to be a 3 star recruit… Cuce.com: “Appeared in nine games as a reserve DB and one of the Orange’s key special teamers … Had 11 tackles and a tackle for loss on the season.” Nunes: “Labrosse came back from injury mid-season to contribute on special teams and got some reserve run at the safety positions. He finished the year with eleven stops and one tackle for loss….He’ll at least get special teams looks, similar to last season, and likely be on the two-deep in the middle of the field somewhere. With his size and the experience he had last season, he should be up for an enhanced role this year…. Ben was fourth on the team by PFF coverage grades last year, and the third-ranked tackler (top-ranked returning Orange player there).”

He left early on and is in the transfer portal.

Nunn was a big-time recruit when he got here but had his career knocked off the rails by injury, (a torn ACL), and legal problems, which have been resolved. (An arrest for carrying a concealed weapon. The charges were dropped – he was a passenger in a car that contained the gun and it wasn’t his gun.) He played in four games last year. Nunes: “Now, Nunn should get a shot to jump back into the two-deep depth chart given the departures in the offseason. It’ll be stiff competition for playing time, and he’s up against many players who saw a lot of time last year. Still, figure to see him on the field plenty since he can play both safety and corner…. Nunn came to Syracuse with plenty of hype, but we haven’t really been able to see a ton of him yet. After redshirting in year one, he played in just four games in 2020 before injury, recording three stops. Nunn’s a big hitter who could be plugged in at safety instead. Ultimately, though, he’ll probably get snaps where needed — and right now, that’s at corner, with fewer experienced bodies available.”

He was stuck behind Duce in the depth chart, which must be discouraging since Duce is a true freshman. Nunn played in 5 games and had just one tackle.

Williams, Garrett that is, is last on this list but is the most celebrated returning defensive back after a spectacular freshman season. He definitely has star quality, regardless of how the scouting services rated him. Cuse.com: “Named a Freshman All-American by The Athletic … Honorable Mention All-ACC … Led the ACC in passes defended (12) and was seventh nationally at the conclusion of the regular season (second among freshmen) … Tied for the ACC lead with 10 pass breakups … 5.8 tackles per game was the most among ACC cornerbacks, and was third on Syracuse in tackles in 2020 (64) … According to Pro Football Focus, the cornerback duo of Williams and Ifeatu Melifonwu was the seventh-highest graded cornerback duo in the FBS”. He also had a Pick-6 vs. Trevor Lawrence, no less. Nunes: “With Ifeatu Melifonwu off to the NFL, Williams takes over as the No. 1 cornerback on the team. There were times he faced an opponent’s top receiver and he did well in that role, but now comes the pressure of being the top guy in Syracuse’s secondary that produced three NFL players last year. You’d think teams would avoid throwing his way, which means Williams will have to produce with less opportunities…. His cover abilities (didn’t allow a touchdown until the final game in 2020) is a big reason why we’re all probably higher on this secondary than national media is despite the NFL departures.”

Williams was plagued by injuries and had a somewhat disappointing second freshman season. Still, in 10 games he had 52 tackles and 10 pass break-ups. He’s still the star of the show for us, until Duce rises to his level.

I would love to have seen what a backfield of Trill Williams, Andre Cisco, Iffy Melifonwu, Eric Coley and Garrett Williams would have looked like this year, (I would have loved to see it last year). But a backfield of Garrett Williams, Eric Coley, Ja’Had Carter, “Duce” Chestnut and Rob Hanna or Neil Nunn could also be fun to watch. If you are going to play a 3-3-5, you need plenty of defensive backs and we’ve got ‘em: 18 of them. Nunn and Chestnut were 4 stars, Atkinson, Barron, Carter, Cole, Coley, Folk, Greenwood, Labrosse, Simmons and Williams were all three stars. We’re going to see 5 guys who can play at this level out there on every play.

Steele projects a starting defensive line-up of Josh Black, Bear Williams and Kingsley Jonathan up front, backed by Mickel Jones, Geoff Cantin-Arku and Stefon Thompson and a backfield of Garrett Williams, Neil Nunn at the corners, Eric Coley and Aman Greenwood at the safety spots and Ja’Had Carter as a ‘rover’. I’ll take that, along with guys like Roscoe, Harper, maybe Geer, Wax, Hanna, Chestnut, and some of the other three stars backing them up and Tony White getting a full spring and fall practice to teach the mysteries of the 3-3-5. We could have a really good defense this year.


We saw five guys who could play this year, in various combinations. And we’ll see more as Dino and his staff continue to load up on defensive backs. Dom Foster was an outstanding receiver but he’s being recruited as a defensive back, (he could be next year’s Chestnut). But man does not live by bread alone and a football team does not live by D-backs alone. If all our units were as deep and talented as this one, we’d be all set.
 

Chip

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Atkinson recorded no stats this year but, as a 3 star he should be able to compete for time in the future. I’m still not sure I like the name “Chase” for a defensive back but he’ll be chasing receivers elsewhere, as he’s entered the transfer portal. He may be one of those guys for whom this is a good sign for us: a 3 star doesn’t think he can compete with the other guys we’ve got here.

Yeah, that's not going to happen.

 

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