The Syracuse defense was and will continue to be the biggest question mark on this team.
This past season, the Orange had issues in all three main areas of the unit, and the end result was a unit that was shredded by the pass or run at different times of the year.
To begin the season, the front seven became the stronger half of the defense, while the secondary struggled against mediocre opposition at best. As the season progressed on, the reverse occurred: the secondary strengthened while the front seven was literally run over by Big East play.
So, what was the cause of this inconsistency?
First, looking at the first half of the season, the secondary was heavily injured and inexperienced.
Syracuse never had a healthy secondary until the Cincinnati contest, and that lasted for just one game. Keon Lyn and Ri’Shard Anderson were by far the best two cover corners on the team, but Lyn especially struggled on deep one-on-one matchups. Furthermore, his pursuit was not always at 100 percent (remembered this play against Louisville?).
But as the season progressed, the secondary became more and more effective, thanks to the play of the Orange’s two safeties.
Phillip Thomas was a playmaking, ball-hawking, heavy hitter all in one. Thomas’ ability to make big plays in the backfield as well as the secondary made him the best player on the Orange. However, his late-season suspension almost guarantees he has played his last game for the Orange.
Shamarko Thomas did not possess the same playmaking abilities as Thomas, but he did show heavy hitting and an ability to make plays at the line that helped compliment his decent abilities in coverage.
To the front seven, the best unit on the defense has to be the linebackers.
Freshman Dyshawn Davis finished the season with 43 tackles and four sacks to be the rookie of the team. Marquis Spruill was not to be outdone, finishing with 62 tackles and three sacks, as many saw him as the best linebacker on the team. While his name may not have been said much, Dan Goggins also had a strong campaign, racking up 43 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
This unit was called upon early to play more of a role in pass coverage and rush the passer effectively and often. They performed admirably, and while their run-stopping abilities at the end of the season may be called into question, this linebacking core may have been the best in the conference.
However, the rest of the front seven have a different story.
The linemen were inconsistent all year. Two veterans, junior Chandler Jones and Senior Mikhail Marinovich, led the defensive line, and while both performed well, they perhaps did not deliver what was expected.
Jones was injured in the Wake Forrest opener and would not return until Syracuse had six games left on the schedule. He did play well in his six games, racking up 34 tackles and leading the team with 4.5 sacks. His absence made pressuring the quarterback difficult early on in the season, but when he returned, he was targeted by opposing teams and could not help the rest of the line with the running game woes.
Marinovich was never the game-breaker Jones was. He only had two tackles a game, and while he did not under-perform, he did not provide the defensive spark the Orange needed at times. The rest of the defensive line struggled, and the lack of another solid inside presence is why the Orange allowed 125 yards per game rushing.
Overall, the defense was the weak link of the team, but that was not unexpected. What was perhaps unexpected was the ease that teams had scoring on the Orange. Pitt, Cincinnati and South Florida are the three most egregious examples, as Syracuse’s defense could not simply stop the offenses faced.
Next season, things are not looking any better.
Recent news has shown that Chandler Jones and Shamarko Thomas may be headed to the NFL draft. Syracuse’s defensive line will be shattered losing Jones and Marinovich, while the safety position will also be a weak spot without Thomas.
The strength will be the linebacking core. Dyshawn Davis, if improved, can be the leader by example for the Orange. Spruill will also be looked upon to potentially take a captain role, and if the linebackers can play at a high level, the Orange defense may be held together just enough to win big games.
The defense did not lose games for the Orange, the entire team did. However, they did not help matters. Hopefully this can change going forward, but it is not going to be a smooth transition.