One of Syracuse's greatest defensive strengths in recent seasons has been its stability at linebacker. The team has had a bevy of stalwarts at the position -- from Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue, to Siriki Diabate, Marquis Spruill and more -- which has really helped make it the heart of recent Orange defenses. Once again, SU will be replacing a major contributor from the unit (this time, Spruill), and every expectation is that they'll continue to excel. But that's not to say Spruill's shoes are the easiest ones to fill, either.
So who's going to step up this year and continue what's become a significant tradition of linebacker success? Read on below...
Marqez Hodge, Sophomore: As a freshman last year, Hodge was able to make the most of his time on the field, backing up Spruill in the middle and recording 22 tackles in eight games. That experience seems to have paid off well now as he gets his own star turn in just his second season at SU. Spruill was a four-year starter, so it's not unprecedented for youth to contribute right away at middle linebacker at all, but he still has plenty to adjust to in a more full-time role. Hodge has added some solid muscle since last year and really appears to be embracing his role at MLB. He's quick and according to Scott Shafer, he gets downhill quick and could be the defense's X-factor this season.
Luke Arciniega, Senior: Unlike most of Syracuse's linebackers who are of the small-and-quick variety, Arciniega's a massive 251 pounds and a really hard hitter from any spot on the field. There's uncertainty about him after offseason hip surgery (one of the main reasons why he's not slated as a starter at middle linebacker right now), but if he's able to recover at full strength by September, he'll definitely be in position to make a major impact. Given Hodge's relative youth, having another option to plug in with him could keep both linebackers more fresh and effective, too. Arciniega has shown himself adept at both getting into the backfield and into passing lanes, and there's simply no way that skill set is staying on the sidelines for very long.
Oliver Vigille, Junior: Vigille's snaps have been limited in the last two years, but in his time on the field, he has shown himself able to make plays at both linebacker and on special teams. He's not necessarily starting material, but in a pinch, he can be a quick burst of energy as a game wears on. Oliver played in 12 games in 2013, racking up five tackles and a defended pass. Expect similar numbers this year while he gets an increased role on the special teams unit, too.
Colton Moskal, Freshman: Moskal's new here, but not at all new to the linebacker position. While a high school senior in the Chicago area, he was incredibly active in the defense -- grabbing 95 tackles, 12 TFLs and four sacks last year. He already possesses the type of size Syracuse is looking for out of the middle linebacker position (around 6'0" and 220 pounds) and has an opportunity to really learn more this season from veteran linebackers while improving for future opportunities. It doesn't really seem like he's a redshirt candidate based on coach feedback, so don't be surprised to see him on the field a few times this fall.
Hernz Laguerre, Junior: Hernz is a walk-on who found his way onto the team last spring. He didn't played last year and it's unlikely he plays much or at all this season either. But still, bonus points for having an excellent name. Let's just hope it never needs to be called during a game or we're in big trouble...
Dyshawn Davis, Senior: Davis was supposed to break out last season, but injuries held him back a bit and contributed to a drop-off in tackles. Still, he had yet another productive year on the outside for Syracuse, with 49 tackles, seven TFLs, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery -- not bad for a guy who is typically most involved in blitz packages, which would normally knock down those overall tackle numbers a little bit. Back at full strength for 2014, though, we could see a major return to form for Dyshawn in his final season. In particular, 2013's ankle injury limited his closing speed and that's where the TFL numbers could pop back up to previous highs. We'll see what happens, but with what should be another blitz-heavy defensive scheme this year, expectations are once again high for what Davis can do.
Cameron Lynch, Senior: With Davis slightly hurt last year, Cam Lynch managed to fill that void in many cases, grabbing some gaudy stats while being an incredibly disruptive force on passing downs. His 69 tackles and 12 TFLs are impressive, but the six defended passes and two picks may be even more so. As we saw all year, he had an uncanny ability to jump short routes, and also had the ability to close and get to the QB, recording four sacks. He's also a major contributor to stopping the run. Crazier still, he may actually be set up to do better in 2014. With more capable pass-rushers to plug in and a healthy Davis on the other side, it'll be tough to dedicate more than one blocker to Lynch on any given play. Expect him to take full advantage.
Josh Kirkland, Senior: Coming from the JUCO ranks, Kirkland was able to jump right in and make a modest impact in 2013. Given his experience (was a key to Butler CC's National Championship run in 2012), it's no surprise that the then-junior recorded 30 tackles while excelling in his first season in Syracuse's system. In year two, the expectations increase a bit, but as a reserve, he gets the ability to fly under the radar and disrupt things in spurts. He's no Davis or Lynch, but Kirkland has still shown himself to be both quick and physical. And taking cues from Lynch, he's one who can and will impact the passing game -- which can only serve to help the secondary (very necessary).
Zaire Franklin, Freshman: As Syracuse brings in linebackers with a little more size going forward, look to Franklin as the typical athlete you'll find walking through the door. Around 6'0" and over 235 pounds, he possesses the right combination of bulk and speed that this team continually employs along the outside. Best of all, he can rush the passer -- and as we all know, Orange linebackers need to know how to blitz. Franklin could find himself some playing time at linebacker and on special teams this year, but if you're looking for a clue about the future of this position, he's one of your focal points.
Jonathan Thomas, Freshman: And this is the other freshman you should get to know, because you're going to hear his name plenty in the coming years. We're just not sure about this year, though... He is a ridiculously fast guy, so that's worth noting, but as I said the other day too, he could be a bit thin right now (stressing could, since we all talked about this in the comments already). If he redshirts, expect him to come back 10-15 pounds heavier and a real contender to start on the outside next year. If he doesn't redshirt, same expectations, though we may see that growth on the fly this season. Either way, he's one to watch.
Alryk Perry, (Redshirt) Freshman: After redshirting last season, we could see Perry hit the field this fall on a special teams/limited basis. He's another outside linebacker who fits exactly what Syracuse tries to do -- blitz and stop the run well -- as evidenced by his 12 TFLs and six sacks as a high school senior in Alabama. He also has some history with knee injuries, though, which is a cause for concern. Just the same, this staff is very good at finding those hidden gems on the recruiting trail and Perry may end up qualifying as one before this time's up.
Parris Bennett, Freshman: Bennett's quite an athlete, with a background playing both linebacker and wide receiver, as well as basketball while in high school. So obviously, we've got a guy who possesses a ton of both speed and endurance (always a plus when dealing with the rigors of a long college football season). Given the logjam of players at the position right now, there's a shot he could redshirt, though injuries may force the staff's hands there, or they could always plug him in on special teams. A lot of possibilities for Bennett, all with their own pros and cons.
PJ Batten, (Redshirt) Freshman: Batten switched from tight end to linebacker this spring, though he's no stranger to the defensive side of the ball. In high school, he showed off a nose for the ball, while also becoming a disruptive pass-rusher, too. As he's already used his redshirt, he's in the conversation for snaps, but Batten's path to playing time runs through special teams this year. Considering his experience catching the ball, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him on the "good hands" team.
Have your own thoughts about Syracuse's linebackers? Share them in the comments.
Also, just in case you missed them, be sure to check out recent previews for Syracuse's quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers (and tight ends), offensive linemen and defensive linemen for the 2014 football season.