Expectations are high for Syracuse’s defense this season with nine returning starters who significantly improved under defensive coordinator Scott Shafer’s system last season.
“The experience is there,” said senior free safety Mike Holmes who led the team in 2009 with three interceptions. “We’re definitely looking forward to going out there and bringing that experience.”
Two other returning starters expected to make a big impact are linebackers Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue. Both converted running backs, Smith led the team with 82 tackles last season, while Hogue posted a team-high 9.5 sacks.
Those kinds of stats helped the Orange defense improve dramatically last season, jumping 77 spots in the national rankings for total defense.
“It’s not our goal to step backwards, it’s our goal to step forward,” Smith said. “Anything we did last year, we want to improve upon it this year.”
One of the area’s the Orange will be looking to improve is in points allowed. Despite marked improvement in many areas last season, Syracuse still gave up nearly 28 points per game. That number puts the Orange in the bottom half of the Football Bowl Subdivision, and dead last in the Big East.
“The first team and a half understand the scheme a lot better than they did a year ago at this time,” Shafer said. “Now, we need to get those youngsters acclimated to understanding at least a good portion of the scheme so we don’t feel limited if one or two of those kids have to get in the middle of a game.”
Behind the linebackers, the secondary highlights what could be the Orange’s deepest unit.
At the cornerback position, senior Da’Mon Merkerson has locked down one of the starting spots. Sophomore Phillip Thomas and senior Kevyn Scott are battling it out for the other starting spot, while sophomore Shamarko Thomas and senior Max Suter are vying for the starting strong safety spot.
However, at least part of that experience won’t be seeing the field this season as the injury bug has hit the Orange particularly hard. Seniors Jared Kimmel and Ollie Haney will miss the entire season, as will sophomore cornerback Ri’Shard Anderson.
With all those injuries, Shafer says younger players have been making an impact in practice including freshman DBs Jeremi Wilkes and Keon Lyn, as well as freshman linebackers Brice Hawkes and Malcolm Cater.
Even though they still have a lot to learn, Shafer said there’s always a chance they could be called upon sooner rather than later.
“We have a number of guys back that have been in the system for a year,” Shafer said. “Some of the weaknesses are that our number two’s are a lot of freshman. But, I’m real excited about where those young kids are going.”
Along the front line, the defense will be trying to replace the production of Baltimore Ravens rookie defensive tackle Arthur Jones. The Orange won’t have to look far, as junior defensive end Chandler Jones – Arthur’s brother – is poised to replace his production.
Syracuse also returns junior Mikhail Marinovich who started all 12 games in 2009. The defensive end from San Clemente, Calif., recorded 20 tackles last season, including three sacks and one forced fumble.
Anchoring the middle of the defense will be seniors Bud Tribbey and Andrew Lewis. The duo combined for 22 tackles and one sack in 2009. Torrey Ball, Anthony Perkins, Brandon Sharpe and Chad Battles also provide depth and experience up front for the Orange.
With so much returning experience, expectations are high for the seniors as they are looking to go out with a bang.
“I think everybody is just working extra hard just to get the little details right,” Smith said. “Our whole motto this year is, ‘It ain’t good enough.’ Everything we do out there, we could do a little bit better. We just take that whole mentality to the field.
“This is our last hoorah, this is our last year here, and hopefully we leave with a bowl ring.”
SU free safety Michael Holmes makes a tackle during the annual spring football game in April. (Photo: Matthew Ziegler)