Scott Shafer confident in Syracuse's defensive newcomers

Scott Shafer is well-aware of the task at hand at Syracuse, which returns just one defensive starter who played in every game last season. But the third-year Orange coach and defensive aficionado knows from experience that the situation is not nearly as dire as it would appear to be on paper.

In his first season as Western Michigan's defensive coordinator 10 years ago, Shafer took over a group that saw nine true or redshirt freshmen make at least three starts apiece. The results were admittedly uneven early on, but by 2006 the Broncos boasted the nation's No. 11 defense, led by the nation's No. 6 rushing D (and No. 2 in sacks).

The key, Shafer said, is keeping it simple, as he and his staff would break down the verbiage into just a few categories and allow their athletes to play at full-speed.

"Pick the top two concepts, the ones that you've had the most success with, and teach those first and make sure that in your teaching process there's a lot of 'same as' talk going on," Shafer told ESPN.com. "Because you can break defensive football into really a handful of categories: Is it a four-down or a three-down front? Is it a man-blitz or a fire-zone blitz? Are the coverages quarters, Cover 2 or Cover 3?

"Those are the five types of things that I was always trying to manage, so when you had change in a game plan you could go back to, 'Hey, it's just like, or it's the same as this, that or the other.' Because when there's a familiarity then you're just teaching or tweaking [and] you have the ability to keep it simple and let the kids play fast. The whole goal is if you have a 4.5 40-yard-dash type of athlete that he can play at 4.5 on Saturday and not let his mind get in the way of his feet, and that's kind of the approach we've taken everywhere."

Shafer has been pleased with the progress of redshirt freshmen corners Juwan Dowels and Cordell Hudson, adding depth to a cornerback group that includes Julian Whigham, Corey Winfield and Wayne Morgan. Safety Rodney Williams and nose tackle Kayton Samuels -- both of whom redshirted last season -- are listed as starters for Friday night's opener against Rhode Island.

The difference between this rookie experiment and Shafer's one from a decade ago is essentially inverted, as Syracuse's defense last year was deceptively stingy, ranking 26th nationally despite a tumultuous offense that did it few favors.

Still, that WMU unit often found itself playing offensive players on the defensive side -- and even then, playing some defensive guys out of position -- to get up to speed. Syracuse has the luxury of a roster filled with ACC-recruited players in Shafer's third year, which figures to relieve a bit of the stress that comes with playing so many young players so early.

"The thing we need to do a good job [of] is earn our money with adjusting and teaching them how to overcome difficult situations throughout the course of the game, and you can't practice that," Shafer said. "So we're going to have to really do a good job managing as we get through quarter No. 1 or quarter No. 2 at Rhode Island, adjust at half, also adjusting to see how some of those kids do throughout the course of their first college fight."