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Syracuse Football Preview: Secondary

Safeties Justin Barron (8, white) and Alijah Clark (5, white) run onto the field in 2023. Both defensive backs return for the 2024 season.
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Safeties Justin Barron (8, white) and Alijah Clark (5, white) run onto the field in 2023. Both defensive backs return for the 2024 season.

Syracuse starting safety Justin Barron had considered entering the transfer portal after the 2023 season. The firing of Dino Babers, the head coach who had brought Barron to the ‘Cuse, mixed with a 6-7 record pushed the team captain to weigh his options elsewhere. But after his first conversation with new head coach Fran Brown, Barron made the decision to come back for his 5th year with the Orange.

“That’s everything I ever wanted,” Barron said of Brown “I wanted someone who thought like me. I wanted someone who wanted to win as bad as I do.”

Bringing Justin Barron back brings well needed continuity and consistency to the secondary. The safety led the unit in tackles the past two seasons. Barron has 215 career takedowns, the 10th most among active Power Five players. On top of that, the fifth year disrupted offenses with a team leading eight pass breakups and three forced fumbles in 2023. Barron's efforts make him the Orange’shighest graded returning player in 2024 according to Pro Football Focus.

Off the field, Barron’s presence and leadership has helped more than his teammates. Defensive coordinator Elijah Robinson praised the safety’s willingness to embrace the new coaching staff and philosophy.

“They (Barron and linebacker Marlowe Wax) opened their arms up to us as a new staff,” said Robinson. “Those are the first guys to come up to the office and say ‘hey coach, what can we get better at, how can we improve?’”

Alongside Barron, two other contributors from 2023 return to bolster the ‘Cuse secondary in 2024. Safety Alijah Clark started all but one game beside Barron, and finished with 36 tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss. Both of which were second most in the secondary. Clark’s two fumble recoveries were tied for the most among the back line in 2023 with another returner in cornerback Jayden Bellamy. The former Notre Dame transfer started the final seven games of the season and recorded a pick-six on his first career interception versus Pittsburgh. Alongside Bellamy is corner Jaeden Gould, who appeared in every game and was recently named the most improved player on defense during spring practices.

A Return to Revamp

Cornerback Duce Chestnut (0, Orange) celebrates a pass deflection. Chestnut spent the 2023 season with LSU after starting 12 games for Syracuse in 2022.
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Cornerback Duce Chestnut (0, Orange) celebrates a pass deflection. Chestnut spent the 2023 season with LSU after starting 12 games for Syracuse in 2022.

Despite the returning talent, there were still holes to fill in the secondary. The Orange allowed 232.4 passing yards per game in 2023, the second most in the ACC. That comes just one year after SU allowed the second fewest air yards in the conference.

One of the key pieces of that Syracuse secondary was cornerback Duce Chestnut. The all-ACC honorable mention transferred to LSU after starting 12 games for the nation’s 18th best pass defense unit in 2022. Chestnut played in just four games for the Tigers last season, recording four tackles and an interception. The former freshman all-American re-entered the transfer portal after the season. It didn’t take long for Chestnut’s former teammates to try and coax him back to the 315.

Eventually, the pieces came together. On New Year’s Day, Chestnut made his long anticipated return to the Orange.

“I’m just glad to be back with my friends, my guys from home, playing for coach Fran (Brown),” said the Camden, New Jersey native. “It’s gonna be a big year for us.”

The former four star recruit picked off four passes and knocked down 13 more in his two years with the Orange. Chestnut was asked to guard teams’ number one receiving options when the team’s number one corner, Garrett Williams, suffered a season ending injury half way through the 2022 campaign.

While the redshirt junior has seen most of his playing time at outside corner, defensive backs coach Joe Schafer has given Chestnut snaps at safety in the offseason practices.

“He’s played a ton of football, so he’s really savvy,” Schafer explained. “You get him in those spots right now where he’s not out on an island at corner, can be around the ball a little more. He’s a really headsy guy.”

New Kids On the Block

Syracuse defensive back Devin Grant (23, blue) covers wideout Zeed Haynes (8, white) in the Spring game.
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cuse.com
Syracuse defensive back Devin Grant (23, blue) covers wideout Zeed Haynes (8, white) in the Spring game.

Chestnut isn’t the only portal addition to the secondary. Syracuse added Buffalo transfer Devin Grant to bolster the safety room. The junior was named to the all-MAC first team in 2023 and led the conference with five interceptions. That figure ranked 6th nationwide. No Orange defender had more than two picks in 2023.

In addition to the portal, two highly touted true freshmen Braheem Long Jr. and Marcellus Barnes Jr. will compete for snaps on day one. Long, a Camden native, was honored as an all-state nod in New Jersey and was a consensus top 50 player in the state. Barnes, a four star recruit, played in the 2024 All-American Bowl which showcases some of the top high school talent in America.

With a brand new coaching staff, help from the transfer portal and a strong core of returners, Syracuse’s secondary unit has a strong chance to bounce back to a top-20 unit in the country if all goes right.