With Dino Babers a lot of people are bullish on the Syracuse offense this fall. However, even with a bunch of starters back on defense the same can't be said for this side of the ball.
Starters Returning: 8/12
Key Losses: DE Ron Thompson, DE Donnie Simmons, DT John Rayman, CB Julian Whigham
Key Returnees: DT Kayton Samuels, LB Zaire Franklin, LB Paris Bennett, LB Jonathan Thomas, LB Ted Taylor, LB Marquez Hodge, CB Corey Winfield, CB Cordell Hudson, CB Juwan Dowels, CB Kielan Whitner, S Chauncey Scissum, S Atwan Cordy
FEI Defense Rank: 105
S&P Defense Rank: 70
S&P Rush Rank: 94
S&P Pass Rank: 112
Turnover Forced: 23
New defensive coordinator Brian Ward is changing the Syracuse scheme from an aggressive blitzing attack from the linebackers to a Tampa-2 variety that preaches patience and much more zone coverage.
Ward comes over from Bowling Green where he was the DC under Dino Babers in 2015. Prior to that appointment, Ward was the DC at Western Illinois (2012-14) and Drake (2011). The step up to the Power 5 level should be challenging, however, Ward should be excited at the amount of experience returning, especially in the back 7 where the most scheme change is needed.
The Orange bring back their top 7 tacklers, including 12 out of their top 13 tacklers. Virtually their entire linebacker and secondary units return with a lot of depth and options for the new defensive coordinator to pick through this year.
Some unfortunate events occurred last month within the Syracuse program as defensive backs Corey Winfield and Chauncey Scissum were stabbed by a teammate. Winfield and Scissum combined to make 15 starts last year and are expected to recover fully from the attacks.
The stabbings were caused by Naesean Howard who was originally kicked off the team before the 2014 season and had re-entered Syracuse again this year as a walk-on to the football program. Following the incident Howard was again removed from the university.
Howard faces 2 counts of felony assault and 1 count of criminal possession of a weapon. He was recently ordered by a judge to undergo a mental competency evaluation.
Fixing the Pass Defense
Syracuse is hoping the switch to a zone defense is going to work wonders on a pass defense that really struggled in 2015. The Orange book-ended their season limiting Rhode Island and Boston College to just 11 completions, 69 yards, no touchdowns, and 3 interceptions.
Unfortunately, they also had a 3-game stretch against Florida State, Louisville, and Clemson where the Orange allowed 84 completions, 1,084 yards, and 8 touchdowns.
Once last fall was complete Syracuse stood 101st in passing yards per game, 97th in yards per attempt, and 119th in completion percentage, the last mark being the worst of any ACC team.
There are at least half a dozen players in the secondary with starting experience but a new coaching staff could turn to new blood if numbers like this don't improve quickly.
Syracuse is one of those teams where a bunch of returning starters may not signal improvement as is usually the case at the collegiate level. For one, they are really thin and lacking experience on the defensive line. A total of 13 out of the team's modest 23 sacks are gone and it's literally a full rebuild at defensive end where a true freshman early enrollee converted linebacker was getting first-team reps this spring.
There should be major concern if Syracuse struggles to get into the backfield that they are going to continue giving up a bunch of yards through the air. A less aggressive scheme with zone principles could be just the right answer. Or, maybe it makes things much worse.
Overall, this defense has to get a little better. The linebackers, led by Zaire Franklin (81 tackles, 11 TFL, 3 sacks) are going to be the strength of the defense. Quality production and experience return throughout the whole linebacker corps. It'll be crucial for these players to pick up the new defense quickly and hope their success rubs off on the rest of the defense.