Countdown to Camp 2017

Countdown to Camp: The importance of eliminating Syracuse’s defensive miscues

Chase Guttman | Staff Photographer

In 2016, SU finished 122nd out of 128 FBS teams in total defense.

Syracuse football’s training camp begins July 30. Every day leading up to camp, The Daily Orange’s football beat writers will take a look at some of the upcoming season’s most pressing storylines, players and position battles. Read more on the Countdown to Camp here.

Led by Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, Louisville scored three touchdowns in its first five plays from scrimmage against Syracuse. That was head coach Dino Babers’ Atlantic Coast Conference debut, quite the introduction to the strengths of a Power 5 offense. It foreshadowed a second straight season of defensive miscues at SU.

A Syracuse football stronghold was once the secondary. Under Doug Marrone, SU’s defense helped the program win its first bowl game in nine years and defeat a top-15 team in the country. But since joining the ACC and matching up against some of the deadliest offensive in the country, the Orange secondary has been shredded. Even under defensive-minded head coach Scott Shafer in 2015, Syracuse finished 99th in the country in total defense.

For the third consecutive season, the Syracuse defense is clouded with uncertainty. The unit has struggled for years to limit opponent run and pass games. 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. 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.

A year ago, the SU defense found just about every way to lose a game defensively. 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, including the defensive disaster at Pittsburgh.

When the ground game didn’t find cracks in the defensive line, offenses resorted to the deep ball to beat SU over the top. SU allowed 45 points to South Florida, 50 to a 4-8 Notre Dame team, 54 to national champion Clemson and 45 to Florida State. Worse yet, Syracuse let up 76 in the season finale at Pitt.

Syracuse’s Tampa 2 defense is a zone coverage scheme where two cornerbacks are responsible for about one-quarter of the field on either sideline and two safeties are in control of deep halves, with the middle linebacker dropping back into coverage to fill in the middle. That puts an extra onus on senior linebacker and three-time captain Zaire Franklin.

The bright spots: In 2016, Daivon Ellison proved to be starter-worthy at safety. Paris Bennett and Franklin accounted for 211 tackles on 870 plays by opponents. Last year, they accounted for just 125 on 847 snaps. In 2015, no defensive player had more than 90 tackles.

Syracuse 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).

The Orange may have a potent offense, but the defense has yet to prove it can pick up the slack. The 2017 slate provides plenty of opportunities.

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