It’s probably been about five years since a Syracuse Orange football fan could take a glance at the defensive depth-chart before the season and say with a straight face: “These guys should be pretty good.”
Although it was Greg Robinson’s supposed area of expertise, the unit continually got worse under his guidance. It seemed that perhaps his greatest failing was recruiting, when you looked at the roster and realized how few of his players actually managed to make any sort of impact.
However, more than a year after Robinson’s firing, it’s become apparent that the players he recruited deserve another evaluation.
It didn’t take long for Doug Marrone and defensive coordinator Scott Shafer to take a bunch of Robinson’s players and turn Syracuse’s previously pathetic defense into the best in the Big East at stopping the run.
That defense returns 10 starters this season, which means ‘Cuse fans can start bragging about them.
Sure, there are still question marks about depth, and the potential impact of a few position changes which will go into effect this season, but, all things considered, it looks like the defense will be even better this season.
Here’s a look at the projected two-deep:
- DE: Mikhail Marinovich, Brandon Sharpe
- NT: Bud Tribbey, Anthony Perkins
- DT: Andrew Lewis, Cory Boatman, Deon Goggins
- DE: Chandler Jones, Torrey Ball
- SLB: Doug Hogue, Brice Hawkes
- SAM: Derrell Smith, Malcolm Cater
- WLB: Marquis Spruill, Ryan Gillum
- CB: Mike Holmes, Da’Mon Merkerson
- FS: Phillip Thomas, Olando Fisher
- SS: Shamarko Thomas,Max Suter
- CB: Kevyn Scott, Jeremi Wilkes/Keon Lyn
The defensive line is the only unit on the defense to lose a starter—Baltimore Ravens' draft pick, Arthur Jones.
The line will still feature some of Jones' power though, as Art’s little brother Chander (using the term “little” loosely with the 6’5", 251 lb. sophomore) will be manning one of the end spots.
Along with Jones, junior defensive end Mikhail Marinovich and senior defensive tackle Andrew Lewis return, with senior Bud Tribbey stepping into the nose tackle spot vacated by Art Jones.
The starters on the line are solid, and it’s also one of the few areas that the Orange are relatively deep.
Backing up Jones and Marinovich are two talented defensive ends, Torrey Ball and Brandon Sharpe, who each saw playing time last season.
At defensive tackle, there are at least three quality backups who will see time in Anthony Perkins, Corey Boatman, and a promising JuCo transfer, Deon Goggins.
Highly touted freshman Max Beaulieu and an under-the-radar pickup, Jay Bromley, could also be guys on whom to keep an eye.
Standing just behind the D-line and ready to inflict some pain this season are the linebackers—the unquestioned strength of the defense.
Seniors Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue are each Butkus Award nominees (the award given to the top linebacker in the country) after each experienced a breakout year in 2009. Both of them are entering just their second years at their respective positions (Smith moved from OLB, Hogue from RB) and, with the added experience, they should make for an even more fearsome combination.
The intrigue during training camp has been the battle for the third starting spot between senior Ryan Gillum and true-freshman Marquis Spruill.
Spruill appears to have won the job, in part due to Gillum missing a few practices, and he’ll bring increased size to the starting unit.
Gillum will provide the Orange defense with a veteran in the second team, which might have otherwise been made up entirely of freshmen.
The coaching staff appears to be grooming freshman Malcolm Cater to be the future at MLB.
Cater has been calling the plays for the second-string defense in scrimmages and with Derrell Smith leaving after this season, the heir-apparent will likely see at least enough playing time to get his feet wet.
The third linebacker joining Gillum and Cater on the second string is a bit of a mystery, but there’s a good chance it will be another freshman, either Brice Hawkes or Lewelynn Coker.
Although neither of them is likely to be called upon too much this season, with three seniors departing after this year, each might also receive some playing time, just to gain some experience.
While the defensive line and linebackers were strong last season (and should be again this year), the overall defense continued to struggle last year, mostly due to the porous secondary. If Syracuse is going to get bowl eligible this season, the pass defense is going to have to improve.
On paper at least, the unit actually looks pretty good.
Seniors Mike Holmes, Max Suter, and Da’Mon Merkerson all return, along with two all-Big East freshman teamers, Phillip and Shamarko Thomas.
How this unit will look is a little hard to project, thanks mostly to a ton of injuries to this group during training camp.
What is clear right now is that last year’s starting free safety, Mike Holmes, is switching roles with Phillip Thomas and will be the team’s No. 1 corner. This move alone could really help the secondary as Holmes has been Syracuse’s best cornerback almost since day one of his freshman year.
Scott Shafer’s defense involves a lot of pressure from linebackers and safeties, so having a couple cornerbacks who can be left alone on an island is huge. Holmes is one guy who can definitely be trusted in that role.
The real question is who’s going to be No. 2?
Da’Mon Merkerson moved over to cornerback last season and helped shore up the unit as the second corner. He’s been playing with the first unit throughout training camp. However, last season’s No. 1 corner, Kevyn Scott is still around as well.
Scott has been plagued by injuries during camp and is just now getting healthy. He’ll probably end up as the third corner at least for now, but he may eventually move back into a starting job. Either way, both he and Merk should play significantly.
Freshmen corners, Keon Lyn and Jeremi Wilkes have also impressed in camp and will be worth keeping an eye on this season.
The other, almost purely ceremonial battle in the secondary is for the starting job at strong safety.
Senior Max Suter and sophomore Shamarko Thomas are both hard-hitters who could each do the job well, but regardless of who ends up winning the job, each will play extensively.
Although the base defense is a typical 4-3 system, Scott Shafer loves to employ what he calls the “Okie package,” which replaces a linebacker with an additional safety.
Shamarko Thomas earned his reputation as a punishing hitter in this package last year and whether he or Suter wins the strong safety job, the other will see the field plenty in this role.
There should be little doubt that the D-line and the linebackers are going to be solid. Even the secondary looks like it should be better than in years past.
So go ahead and brag about the Orange defense a bit and if all you hear in return is laughter, just smile.
The rest of the college football world will know soon enough.