A lot of positive things have been said about Dino Babers’ offensive system and the talent Syracuse football could possess on offense in the next year or two. There are reasons to be excited, but many are still wondering how the Orange defense will take shape.
New defensive coordinator Brian Ward worked on Babers’ staff in the same position at Bowling Green last season. The Falcons’ defense allowed 4.6 fewer points per game and almost 76 fewer yards per contest than in 2014. The improvements were a major reason why Bowling Green won the MAC title last season.
Ward’s Tampa-2 style defense has a completely different philosophy from former Syracuse coach Scott Shafer. With a high-flying, no-huddle, high-octane offense — or so Syracuse hopes — the Orange defense may be on the field a lot more this coming fall.
“Defensively they probably won’t be as good,” one ACC coach said anonymously to Athlon Sports. “They don’t bring back a lot on the defensive line; the linebackers are solid. They’re switching to a Tampa-2, which is a big change from the way Shafer did it where he had guys just running downhill all the time.”
Did Shafer himself say that? It’s hard to believe the Syracuse defense could get any worse, and if change is everybody’s biggest complaint, that’s probably a good thing.
The Orange finished 79th in rushing yards allowed, 103rd in passing yards allowed, and 100th in total defense last season. Furthermore, Syracuse yielded 31 points per game, which was 92nd among 128 Division I FBS schools.
Among ACC schools, Syracuse was second-to-last in scoring defense and last in total defense.
Yes, Shafer’s defense kept the Orange in some ballgames during the course of his tenure. Two years ago, Syracuse played Clemson to a near draw at halftime, 6-3. Syracuse played a lot of ugly games like that and even won a bowl game playing that aggressive, blitz-happy defense.
Yet, the numbers are what they are, and they weren’t good at all for the Orange defense last year. A change was necessary. The question: Will Syracuse’s current defenders, the ones who fit Shafer’s system, adapt to a more passive Tampa-2 style?
Syracuse junior linebacker Zaire Franklin weighed in:
“I would say it has its differences, but at the same time it has a lot of similarities,” Franklin said during the last week of July in this story at Syracuse.com. “We’re still playing football. It’s not like we didn’t play a little Cover 2 last year.”
Franklin will probably be asked to play more zone pass coverage than ever before at Syracuse, but he’s been working hard with Ward and new linebacker coach Tom Kaufman at making those adjustments. Franklin also told Syracuse.com that he might have more freedom in the Tampa-2 because Kaufman installed specific nuances for the linebackers.
However, running a Tampa-2 also means Syracuse will mostly count on its front four to pressure the quarterback. As indicated in our anonymous quote, the Orange aren’t bringing back much on their defensive front. Getting to the quarterback will be the responsibility of sophomore defensive tackles Chris Slayton and Kayton Samuels, along with freshmen defensive ends Jake Pickard and Kenneth Ruff.
Slayton is the only one of those four players to make an impact on the team last year. In 12 games, he recorded 22 total tackles, including 6 tackles for a loss.
Just like the offense, the defense will have its share of growing pains in its first season, but again, it’s difficult to say the defense is worse than it was a year ago. Although it might take a year or two, Babers has both sides of the ball heading in the right direction.