Chuck Bullough, Syracuse defense embracing turnover

Spare Chuck Bullough the skepticism. He knows Syracuse's 2014 season went nothing like the Orange had planned. Especially in light of a debut ACC campaign that included seven wins and a bowl victory.

A 3-9 record is a 3-9 record. And yet, the fall was dotted with moments of fulfillment, at least from a coaching standpoint.

"Defensively, we didn't quit," the third-year Orange defensive coordinator said. "We had an older veteran group, and to the end, those guys fought. And even the BC game at the end, they were just fighting tooth and nail, even though they knew we weren't going to win, it didn't matter. So that was great.

"So now, as we talk as a defensive staff, this is going to be the most challenging because we lost all those guys. It's just going to be challenging."

No kidding.

As Bullough gathered his players in the winter, he asked that anyone who started every game last fall to raise his hand.

Just one hand went up. Ron Thompson's. And the pass-rushing end had been playing out of position, at tackle.

So Bullough has had his work cut out for him this spring. A unit that was a stellar 26th nationally in total defense last season is essentially starting from scratch. As noted, Syracuse's season was a massive letdown with its defense playing so well. And while much of that misery could be attributed to a rash of injuries and chemistry issues on the other side of the ball -- problems that went out the door as the calendar turned -- the defense knows it must carry the lessons left behind by the seniors in order to help right the ship this fall.

"Our first meeting, Coach Bullough just let us know right off the bat that we had a bunch of new guys coming in and that we need to remember what the seniors did last year to keep fighting all game long," cornerback Julian Whigham said. "I think the young guys really took after a lot of the guys that left. They've been in the system for a year now, for two years."

The cornerbacks are, in many ways, the anchors of the defense, with experienced seniors Whigham and Wayne Morgan back. Whigham knows his group will have to shoulder more of a load, but he is also looking for some personal redemption after a subpar showing last season that featured just one pick and two pass break-ups.

"I was just trying to do too much last year," he said. "I had a little bit of success my sophomore year, and I was just really trying to take it to the next level last year and I was just doing too much. Going out of my way, trying to make things happen and then it went exactly how I didn't want it to go. So it started to build up and it ate my confidence at the end of the season.

"So this year just back to basics, focusing on what I can do to get better every day, and making sure I become more consistent in my technique and my keys from that standpoint so I can be a great player."

Asked if a frightening lung contusion suffered at Florida State in 2013 stuck with him through 2014, Whigham conceded that the further away he gets from the injury, the better, adding that it may have affected him subconsciously.

Regardless, Whigham knows he must turn the page in 2015, as more will be asked of him in his final year. The same goes for a number of returning players with varying degrees of experience.

"There's guys with starts," Bullough said. "Zaire Franklin started. Donnie Simmons, John Raymon, they played some, but they weren't 'the guy.' It's different when you become 'the guy.'"

With just three starters returning from a defense that gave the Orange several chances at major upsets -- forcing five turnovers against Notre Dame and four at Clemson certainly stand out -- the opportunities are out there for underclassmen to prove themselves worthy of being "the guy" at their positions.

Even if those guys aren't on the field yet as the Orange complete these final two weeks of practice before their April 4 spring game.

"We'll probably have to play a lot more freshmen than you'd like to," Bullough said. "Obviously at the defensive line and the safety positions we lost a ton of players there, but we've really been proactive with those guys that are coming in, keeping in touch with them, and every week checking in what their weights are, what their bench is, what's it like. Really been proactive in that, knowing that these guys are going to have to come in and play.

"The flipside of that is, if we do have to play a lot, in two or three years now you'll have a seasoned group of guys that have really played a lot."