Football

Dino Babers: Syracuse’s defensive line and defensive back groups ‘greatly improved’

Jessica Sheldon | Staff Photographer

Antwan Cordy, Syracuse's starting safety, is shown here making a tackle against Louisville last year. Cordy has received praise this week from both Babers and Franklin.

UPDATED: Aug. 30, 2017 at 4:30 p.m. EST

Since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference and matching up against some of the deadliest offenses in the country, the Syracuse secondary has been shredded. Even under defensive-minded head coach Scott Shafer in 2015, the Orange finished 99th in the country in total defense.  In 2016, SU finished 122nd out of 128 FBS teams in total defense, and SU allowed 6.91 yards per play and 501.1 yards per game.

Nonetheless, SU head coach Dino Babers said Wednesday on the ACC coaches teleconference that the defensive line and defensive back groups are “greatly improved,” from last year.

“I just don’t think it’s the same defense,” Babers said two days ahead of the Orange’s season opener against Central Connecticut State. “The D-Line, secondary … thank goodness we have the same bunch of linebackers we’ve been playing with.”

The linebacker group brings the most experience to SU, with a pair of seniors in Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett leading the pack. In 2016, Daivon Ellison proved to be starter-worthy at safety. Bennett and Franklin accounted for 211 tackles on 870 plays by opponents. The season prior, they accounted for just 125 on 847 snaps. In 2015, no defensive player had more than 90 tackles.

Syracuse also returns 13 of its 14 leading tacklers from last season. The more experienced defense will be tested against top offenses this fall, including Louisville (third total offense in 2016), Clemson (12th), Florida State (25th) and Pittsburgh (38th).

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Daily Orange File Photo

The unit has struggled for years to limit opponent run and pass games. Under Babers, an up-tempo, no-huddle offense typically isn’t on the field for extended drives, putting more pressure on the SU defense to stay on the field longer. Still, Babers said the defense is “detailed, focused and a lot sharper.”

Junior Kielan Whitner, once a safety, transitions to backup strong-side linebacker, behind Jonathan Thomas. Seniors Franklin and Bennett bring experience to an otherwise young defense. Franklin said the defense’s most improved players are Thomas, a senior, and redshirt junior Kayton Samuels, who will start instead of sophomore McKinley Williams. Graduate transfer Austin Valdez should slot in as well for time.

“We’re getting great effort from these positions,” Babers said.

The second-year head coach on Monday highlighted free safety Antwan Cordy. Franklin said having Cordy behind the defense is “major, major, major, just knowing that he’s there to clean up any mistakes we miss.”

Which were numerous in 2016. Blown coverages, missed assignments and open holes plagued the zone coverage. In a 35-20 loss to North Carolina State, Syracuse didn’t stop the Wolfpack on third down. Louisville and South Florida zone reads burned SU. The secondary showed how depleted it was in the final four games of the season, all losses.

The defense will be on display for the first time this season at the Carrier Dome Friday night at 7 p.m. against CCSU.

The story has been updated for appropriate style and with a revised headline. 

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