Position Preview: Defensive Back

Syracuse has plenty of experience returning in the secondary, along with a potential star in Durell Eskridge. Young talent could play a big role as well, though camp battles will make the picture crystal clear. CuseNation.com examines the position inside.

Veterans depart, stars remain and experience is throughout the Syracuse secondary heading into 2014, but some questions do remain within the group heading into fall camp.

CuseNation.com examines prior to the start of fall camp.

Current Depth Chart

Starters: Brandon Reddish and Julian Whigham at cornerback, Durell Eskridge and Darius Kelly at safety.

Reserves: Wayne Morgan, Juwan Dowels, Antwan Cordy, Cordell Hudson and others at cornerback. Ritchy Desir, Chauncey Scissum, Rodney Williams, Nasean Howard, Jaston George and others at safety.

The Incumbents

After Keon Lyn’s injury in 2013, Brandon Reddish and Julian Whigham each saw plenty of time opposite the departed Ri’Shard Anderson at cornerback. Each impressed during spots of the campaign, with Whigham snagging a trio of interceptions and Reddish leading the secondary in passes broken up. Each had seen plenty of reserve and nickel time beforehand, but the team needing each to step up sooner than expected could only help for this season as they are expected to start opposite each other in Scott Shafer’s base defense.

At safety, Eskridge was the breakout performer on the defense and maybe for the entire program. He not only led the team in tackles with 78, but he also picked off four passes and made his presence felt as a run defender including on several stops behind the line of scrimmage. Desir and Kelly each saw time at safety, each playing both spots when Eskridge was injured or rotated out of the lineup, combining for 91 tackles in 2013. The safety rotation should be similar in 2014, though Kelly has the early edge on Desir to start opposite the budding star Eskridge.

Breakout Potential

The five returning rotational guys listed above had another returning player see the field plenty in 2013, but Wayne Morgan has to take the next step this fall. He can play cornerback, where he’s listed behind Whigham on the pre-camp depth chart, or safety as he’s played throughout his SU career. Also a special teams standout, the versatile Morgan will be asked to play the alley as a slot corner and possibly as a third safety depending on the rotation and availability of others at corner.

While the New York City native’s role may not be as defined as others’ on the roster, it is clear that he’s one of the top six defensive backs on the roster, and perhaps the most versatile, which will be needed against the many spread looks in the ACC. If the junior has any chance to breakout, it will be this fall, both as a run supporter and defender in space against the pass. Morgan can run, play physical and aid on special teams to the point that he’ll have to be one of the more well-conditioned athletes on the Orange roster.

If SU’s secondary is to be as good as it seemingly can be, Morgan will play a big role.

Freshman Impact

As we mentioned with Morgan’s need to play versatile and perhaps in multiple spots given the game plan and opponent, that means a young cornerback will have to step up and see considerable playing time in dime and perhaps nickel packages (SU’s Okie package of years past). The candidate based on high school tape and even the SU depth chart is Dowels. The South Florida frosh, who went to the same high school as the departed Anderson (working at the Tennessee Titans’ camp), is listed behind Reddish in the pre-camp plan.

Dowels is a listed 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, but he has tremendous hips, closing speed and ball skills. He also played against top flight competition at Plantation (Fla.) American Heritage High, including the alma maters of Eskridge, Whigham and Lyn over the last few years. Even if Morgan is a full-time corner, which isn’t the most likely of scenarios, Dowels will likely get time in passing situations, surely on special teams and obviously if an injury in front of him occurs. Most colleges, including SU, like to rotate plenty within the secondary, so the top freshman cover corner should see his fair share of playing time. Our bet is Dowels, but Cordy and Hudson will challenge that over the next month or so. It will be a bit tougher for the frosh safeties, Howard and Williams, with so much experience at the position and a potential emerger like Scissum ahead of the pack, so each should be considered a redshirt candidate at this time. Of course, camp can change most of these notions, so buckle up.

Most Important Player

With versatility key in Morgan, Desir and even Whigham’s role in the defense, there has to be steady play at the back-end, and the guy calling the shots has to be the ringleader. This role has to be Eskridge’s, a junior who could be NFL-bound if the stars align and he has the season most feel he could have. He’s 6-foot-3, 200-plus pounds, with physicality, range and ball skills -- but can he lead? If the Miami native can make the mental gains to lead a talented group in 2014, it could be the difference between one of the better defenses in the ACC and a run-of-the-mill unit.

Eskridge has all the tools to be a force, and if he remains healthy, could be one of the first SU players (Hickey in the mix, too) selected in the NFL Draft, should he leave early. His 2013 breakout campaign will make him a marked man to opposing offenses during game-planning each week, so he’ll earn every accolade he may receive over the next five-plus months.

Projected Starters

Eskridge and either Desir or Kelly will man the traditional safety spots, depending on camp, and Whigham and Reddish will open up opposite each other at corner. The third-wheel at safety, likely Desir, will still see considerable playing time, as will the current No. 3 cornerback in Morgan. Those six defensive backs will comprise the group that the Orange will lean on in the back-end, though at least one freshman will have to emerge for depth.

The unit has experience, speed, length, physicality and ball skills within it, as Syracuse will feature a solid back-end on its defense. The same can be said for the linebackers and the defensive line, but key figures like Eskridge and Dyshawn Davis have to steer the ship.

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