More times than not, when a veteran-laden unit suffers injury to arguably the most talented piece of the puzzle, the overall play suffers. Couple that with another key contributor going down and two more playing while hurt, and the unit is usually considered a weakness.
Though the circumstances have mounted for the Syracuse secondary, the results have only improved.
Shamarko Thomas, the unit's enforcer, missed each of the last two games (against Toledo and Rutgers) because of a hamstring injury. Orlando Fisher, a key veteran nickel-back, has not played since the season opener. Cornerbacks Keon Lyn and Rishard Anderson, who alternate as the starter opposite senior Kevyn Scott, continue to play with casts on. So how has the unit survived?
Secondary becoming ‘mature' unit
Despite the ailments, the unit has progressed in each of the last two weeks. Jeremi Wilkes got the first two starts of his career in place of Thomas and a host of players – including some linebackers – have picked up the slack for Fisher on passing downs. But the key may have been the healthy defensive backs rising up to the occasion.
Scott has played light's out over the last two weeks, making a key interception that directly led to the winning possession against Toledo and limiting big plays against Rutgers. Phillip Thomas, who starts at free safety, had arguably his best game since enrolling at SU last week. Against the Scarlet Knights, he was the most active defender on the field against both the run and the pass. Thomas filled the alley well in run support and he got his hands on three passes, though he hauled in just one interception. But perhaps his best effort was helping to bracket All-American candidate Mohamed Sanu in big spots, jamming him effectively at the line on several occasions.
"We knew the routes he wanted to run and we all knew that they wanted to get him the ball in the open field," Thomas said after the game. "Me and (linebacker) Dom Anene just tried to make him tired."
The understudies have played well, too. Wilkes, a sophomore, went full-speed every chance he had despite the lack of experience. He deflected a key pass headed his way that appeared to be in Sanu's hands, and played well late in the loss after some mental errors and missed tackles extended some early Rutgers possessions.
"It's a work in progress," Scott spoke of the young players in the secondary. "But if you look from Week 1 to where they were at on Saturday, it's huge. As these guys continue to mature and get better, we are going to be a much better defense."
Lyn and Anderson, both playing in just their second season, made a big impact in the overtime loss to RU. Anderson scooped a fumble and jolted down the sidelines for a 66-yard touchdown to get ‘Cuse on the board. He rotated with Lyn throughout the game, as both corners sported casts on the hand/wrist. Lyn excelled in one-on-one coverage – even against Sanu – despite the limitation. He even had a chance at an interception, though he could not haul the pass in.
Now that younger players have gotten their feet wet, the veterans appear as healthy as they have been all season. Thomas has practiced all week, and Fisher saw limited work as the team prepares to take on Tulane Saturday in New Orleans.
"Maturity," Thomas re-iterated throughout the week when describing what the secondary exhibited in his absence. But his return brings plenty of aspects to the unit.
"Speed, aggression" Scott said. "Shamarko Thomas is a heck of a ball-player, especially at safety. He comes down and just hits people, and he's a for-sure tackler back there."
Fisher will likely be eased back into the mix over the next two weeks, but the unit is heading in the right direction both health-wise and schematically.
The defensive backfield will have more battle-tested depth against Tulane than any other opponent this season, so it should only continue to improve. There is still plenty of room to as well, considering how Sanu did break loose for a late touchdown and miscommunication was to blame.
"We're going to continue to get better as a unit," Thomas added.
If so, we may be on the verge of seeing one of the groups responsible for a defense's revival despite injury and youth across the board.