Andre Cisco has perhaps the most to lose from any potential pitfalls of playing football for Syracuse University amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But his motivation as a program leader outweighed all opt-out considerations for the junior defensive back.
Cisco will play a starring role in the Orange’s new 3-3-5 defensive scheme under fifth-year coach Dino Babers when SU kicks off the season at noon Saturday with an Atlantic Coast Conference game at 18th-ranked North Carolina.
The Valley Stream native has remained consistent in his desire to play since SU opened training camp despite his status as a projected first-round NFL Draft pick by numerous experts, including ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.
Cisco enters as the FBS active career leader with 12 interceptions in just 22 career games, received Preseason All-American honors by five publications, and is on the watch list for four separate awards to honor the top defensive players in the nation.
“I would say (to expect) a lot of leadership and a lot more plays to be made,” Cisco said. “I’m looking to have a huge effect on the game at a safety position, it’s not easy always to do that when it seems like you’re far away from the ball. I’m looking to really fly around to the ball and really lift the energy of this team every game.”
Cisco is a member of the SU player leadership counsel that halted practice twice during camp to present concerns to Babers and SU athletic director John Wildhack. Those meetings led to more stringent COVID-19 testing within the program and a recommendation to the ACC to increase to three tests per week in the regular season, which was eventually implemented for all conference teams.
Fellow defensive backs Trill Williams and Ifeatu Melifonwu have described Cisco as a more mature vocal leader, taking direction with young players over the past summer, and each described how Cisco commands respect from teammates with his reliable on-field performance.
“The fact that they rely on me and I’m a big part of what we can be as a team this year, that’s what motivates me,” Cisco said. “Having guys being able to look at me as a leader, that’s a big part of why I do this every day, and then my family as well.”
Cisco was listed as the Week 1 starter in the “Rover,” position for the new-look alignment under first-year defensive coordinator Tony White. The rover is a position that allows Cisco to roam in coverage and occasionally blitz, taking advantage of his knack for getting to the ball at each level of the field.
The 3-3-5 scheme adds an extra defensive back in place of a player that would traditionally line up in the front seven in attempt to add speed and playmaking ability, an adjustment that fits SU’s personnel with its strength in the secondary and Cisco as the focal point.
“It’s fun, it fits us, and we’re able to fly around and play fast and enjoy it the way football should be played,” Cisco said. “It’s a lot of fun for me, personally, I’m in an interesting position where I get to be around the ball a lot and fly around, and be able to make different type of plays that I didn’t get to make as much last year playing free safety. I’m excited and I think most of the guys feel the same way.”
White was hired in February to bring the system to SU after teaching the 3-3-5 for nine seasons as an assistant defensive coach under Rocky Long at San Diego State. Most recently, White worked three seasons as a defensive assistant at Arizona State, including last year as defensive coordinator under Herm Edwards.
Babers spoke of envisioning the exciting, distinctive defensive attack as an Orange staple to match the fireworks of his preferred up-tempo style on offense.
“We have a lot in store as a whole defense, we’re enjoying and embracing this new concept and understanding defense in a different kind of way,” said senior defensive lineman Kingsley Jonathan.
Williams and Melifonwu also figure to thrive around Cisco in the secondary of the revamped attack as a pair of physical, aggressive playmakers with elite athletic profiles.
Melifonwu has defended 16 passes, including two interceptions, in 18 career games, while Williams has hauled in three interceptions during 25 career outings, punctuating last season by scooping a fumble recovery for a game-winning 94-yard touchdown.
“There are a lot of guys in that secondary that can make plays and I think this defense suits them, and the fact that our offense gets to go against them every single day just makes us better,” said SU redshirt junior quarterback, Tommy DeVito, entering his second full season as the starter.
“They all play off each other, that’s the cool thing I’ve noticed about this defense, they all push each other to be better, like Cisco and Trill (Williams) are always getting into it, feeding off each other’s energy and once that defense gets rolling, it’s hard to stop.”