Syracuse, N.Y. -- Of all the dynamic receivers the Syracuse secondary faced last season, it only truly shut down one of them: Wake Forest's Michael Campanaro. Campanaro led the Demon Deacons into the Carrier Dome with nearly 800 receiving yards through seven games. He left with a broken collarbone suffered in the first quarter.
It was a frustrating season for the SU defesive backs as opposing air attacks averaged 245.9 yards per game, good for 81st in the country. On Saturday, a secondary that features three new starters gets its first chance at redemption when Maryland, led by preseason All-Atlantic Coast wide receiver Stefon Diggs, comes to the Carrier Dome at 12:30 p.m.
"We have the speed, we have the ability, we have the talent to match up with anybody," junior cornerback Julian Whigham said. "We'll prove that on Saturday."
Whigham and senior Brandon Reddish man the corner positions with redshirt junior Durell Eskridge at free safety and seniors Darius Kelly and Ritchy Desir rotating at strong safety. Through two games this season, the unit has allowed just two completions of 30-plus yards and only one touchdown through the air, but the Terrapins offense presents a much more daunting challenge.
Dual-threat QB C.J. Brown and Diggs, who missed last year's matchup with a broken fibula, have quickly gained a rapport this season, hooking up five times for 127 yards and a score against West Virginia last Saturday. Add in Deon Long, who was also sidelined last year with a broken right tibia and fibula, and the Terrapins offense has a level of flexibility and big-play potential that Villanova and Central Michigan did not.
But Whigham believes that this year's secondary is up to the challenge. The unit is emphasizing technique more thoroughly and spending extra time in the film room.
"It makes us faster because we're not thinking about where we need to be," Whigham said. "We're not making mental mistakes like last year. It's just showing on the field how much better we've been."
Whigham said that he will stick to the boundary, or short side of the field, for most of the game and expects to draw Long on the majority of snaps. Diggs, who primarily plays the slot, will face a variety of defenders through the game, depending on what formation the SU defense is in.
In many third-and-long situations though, the Orange will likely go to its Okie (3-3-5) package and Kelly will line up opposite Diggs -- an exercise that defensive backs coach Fred Reed said is more or less impossible to replicate in practice.
"We just don't have the people to really do it, to be honest with you," Reed said. "What we have to do is work on the concepts."
Those concepts include sharp form in press-man situations, improved communication in zone coverages and breaking out of zone coverage to "plaster" receivers when Brown escapes the pocket. But most importantly, the secondary is focused on not letting any pass-catchers get behind the defense.
Eskridge emphasized maintaining an increased level of physicality. He remembers how many long completions the secondary gifted in 2013. This year, he wants to set the tone in the unit's first big challenge of 2014.
"Just watching them, I think they don't like to really be touched," Eskridge said. "So the only thing we've got to do is go out there, put out hands on them and be physical for the whole game; never take a play off and it'll be a long day for them."
Diggs is the first of several premier receivers that Syracuse will face this season. Notre Dame's William Fuller (19/225/3), Clemson's Artavis Scott (8/205/2), Florida State's Rashad Greene (15/283/1) and Pittsburgh's Tyler Boyd (11/140/4) are all to come.
Said Eskridge: "We've just got to communicate and I feel like we can play with anybody in the country."
Terps Take Down Orange, 34-20
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