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Head Coach: Dino Babers (fifth season)
2019 Record: 5-7
2020 NFL Draft Picks: Alton Robinson, DE, Seattle Seahawks – 5th Round, No. 148 overall
Sterling Hofrichter, P, Atlanta Falcons – 7th Round, No. 228 overall
Fresh off of a 10-3 campaign which tied as the best record at Syracuse since their undefeated season back in 1987, the Orangemen stumbled in 2019, falling back to 5-7 and out of postgame contention for the third time in head coach Dino Babers’ four years at the helm.
Though Syracuse lost just one player to the NFL’s 2018 NFL draft (seventh round defensive tackle Chris Slayton, NYG), most expected a drop on the offensive side of the ball as the team lost gutty dual-threat quarterback Eric Dungey to graduation. Dungey led the Orangemen in both passing (18) and rushing (15) touchdowns in 2018, numbers that 2019 starter Tommy DeVito was able to exceed as a thrower (19 touchdowns), but not as a runner (two scores), dramatically changing the Syracuse offense.
The pass rush also took a major step back with edge defenders Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman dropping to four sacks apiece in 2019 after tying the previous year, as well, but with 10 quarterback takedowns each. The Orange, in fact, dropped nearly a full third of their sacks from the 2018 to 2019 season, finishing with just 30 this past season, tying them with the likes of North Texas, Central Michigan and Navy after ranking among FBS leaders with 44 sacks a year earlier.
Given the sharp decline in these key statistics on both sides of the ball, Syracuse’s struggles last season are far from surprising. Three of the Orange’s victories last year came out of conference against Liberty, Western Michigan and Holy Cross. Given Babers and his team credit for finishing out the season on a high note, however, dunking the Blue Devils 41-9 at Duke before hanging on in overtime to surprise Wake Forest, which finished with eight wins on the season and a Pinstripe Bowl berth.
Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Andre Cisco, S, 6-0, 203, 4.50, JR
While some of the Orange’s other standouts struggled to duplicate previous success in 2019, their All-American ballhawk at safety, Andre Cisco, was a notable exception despite missing three games due to injury.
One year after becoming the first true freshman to lead the country in interceptions since Oregon’s George Shaw in 1951, Cisco proved that his pass thievery was no fluke, collecting another five picks to give him 12 in just two seasons, making him the leading returning interceptor in the FBS.
Cisco’s sudden soft hands are a bit surprising given that he signed with the Orangemen as a relatively unheralded prospect who recorded just one interception as a senior.
Nevertheless, he played in all 13 games as a true freshman, racking up 16 passes defensed among his seven interceptions, as well as 60 tackles and a forced fumble. For his efforts, Cisco was named the ACC’s Rookie of the Year, as well as First Team all-conference and an All-American by several outlets.
A lower body injury suffered against Clemson pushed Cisco out of the lineup for three games last year but the big plays returned once he did. Cisco added 10 more assisted tackles to his statistics, jumping up to 65 total tackles in just nine games last year while becoming more efficient as a ballhawk, turning half of his 10 breakups into picks, returning one of them 48 yards for a touchdown in the blowout at Duke.
Syracuse was once one of the most consistent producers of NFL defensive backs but has not seen one selected since the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Shamarko Thomas in the fourth round back in 2013. With another stellar campaign, Cisco is a good bet to resume the ‘Cuse tradition, perhaps challenging to be the first Syracuse player to earn a first round pick since the New York Giants stayed local to nab Justin Pugh 19 overall in that same 2013 class.
Strengths: Good-looking athlete with the broad shoulders and tapered build scouts want at the position. Highly aggressive, both in terms of jumping routes and in run support. Flies upfield to attack would-be blockers, bringing the physicality to them to set the tone and, oftentimes, the edge, forcing ballcarriers to adjust. Generally a reliable open-field tackler who breaks down well in space against elusive ballcarriers, showing balance and the long arms to lasso, when needed. Prefers to line up ballcarriers, however, proving an impact hitter who generates bone-rattling collisions. Shows terrific spatial awareness and body control with his hits, leading correctly with his shoulder and showing a knack for separating the ball from the ballcarrier. Does not give up on the play with the pass seemingly completed, snaking his arm between those of his opponents and raking the ball free.
Impressive route recognition and vision to track the eyes of quarterbacks and anticipate throws, getting an early break on the ball. May lack elite timed speed but is a smooth and efficient athlete, changing directions quickly and showing at least adequate top-end speed for deep coverage duties. Undeniable track record for interceptions, showing excellent timing and body control on his leaps, as well as sticky hands. Extends and snatches the ball away like a receiver rather than simply collecting passes. No known off-field issues and appeared no worse for the wear following last season’s early leg injury. Noticeable weight gain since he’s arrived on campus with added definition in his upper and lower body.
Weaknesses: Must clean up the missed tackles, with too many ballcarriers bouncing off of Cisco’s big hits simply because he failed to wrap securely. Almost trusts his eyes too much, taking reckless angles to the ball, at times, and guessing route combinations, leaving him in poor position when he guesses wrong (Clemson). A smooth athlete but appears to lack the second-gear to close once beaten. At his best with his eyes toward the quarterback, getting locked onto his primary responsibility at losing track of the ball. Missed three games in 2019 due to a leg injury, which may require a closer look by NFL doctors.
NFL Player Comparison: HaHa Clinton-Dix, Dallas Cowboys – Sporting a similar frame and ballhawking nature, Clinton-Dix earned a first round selection by the Green Bay Packers in 2014, collecting seven interceptions in just two seasons as a starter at Alabama. With cleaner tackling (an issue, at times for Clinton-Dix, as well), Cisco could join him as a top 32 pick.
Current NFL Draft Projection: First-Second Round
The Top 10 NFL Prospects at Pittsburgh:
1. Andre Cisco, S, 6-0, 203, 4.50, JR
2. Airon Servais, OL, 6-5, 291, 4.95, rSR
3. Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB, 6-3, 207, 4.45, rJR
4. Aaron Hackett, TE, 6-3, 234, 4.75, SR
5. Chris Elmore FB, 6-0, 295, 5.0, SR
6. Tommy DeVito, QB, 6-2, 212, 4.95, rJR
7. Taj Harris, WR, 6-1, 180, 4.45, JR
8. Josh Black, DT, 6-3, 270, 4.95, rSR
9. Cody Roscoe, DE/OLB, 6-1, 245, 4.80, SR - transfer from McNeese State
10. Abdul Adams, RB, 5-11, 202, 4.50, rSR
*All 40-yard dash times are estimates