The Syracuse football season is almost here. In the lead-up to kickoff, we’re previewing every position group on this year's Syracuse squad, making sure you’ll fully prepared for September 4. Today, we take a look at the…
Syracuse Orange Linebackers
During a rough 2014, the linebackers still managed to do what they do best: cause chaos and lead the Syracuse front-seven. But that group was also pretty experienced with long-time contributors like Dyshawn Davis and Cameron Lynch creating their typical disruption. Now, without them, the Orange sort of start over.. but with a caveat. Injuries last year gave a lot of younger guys playing time, which could definitely pay dividends as they're called upon once again to assist SU's usual pass rush.
Zaire Franklin, Sophomore
Franklin, a rising star for the Orange, will have the spotlight shining brightly on him this season -- his first as a starting middle linebacker for SU. You saw glimpses of what he could do last season (44 tackles and five TFLs), so now we wait and see if those numbers, compiled in spots over 12 games, translate into starting-caliber production. To be honest, it's hard to see how they won't in his case, though. The sophomore is a smart, well-spoken kid who understands his role in the defense and how important the MLB spot is for a team so hell-bent on blitzing. He's not looked at as one of the conference's best linebackers just yet, but he could be a sleeper in the ACC come year's end.
Troy Henderson Jr., Freshman
Henderson is a true frosh, but the depth chart already shows him potentially looking at some playing time this year. No, you don't want to rush him onto the field if you don't have to, but having some quality depth to plug in and give Franklin some rest would be a welcome sight. His style -- aggressive, nose-for-the-ball, focused on big plays -- seems to fit right into Syracuse's m.o. and makes him one of the Orange freshmen to REALLY keep an eye on this year. If the team can get some snaps for Troy and the other young guys early, it would be a huge boost to later depth and keeping players fresh.
Hernz Laguerre, Senior
Hernz has yet to see the field for the Orange, but... maybe this is the year? He's not necessarily the guy you're begging to toss onto the field, however, with some injuries or simple depth needs, it's not out of the question he's tossed in for some snaps here and there. Having walk-ons jump in is never the "ideal" scenario, but at least he has the type of size (6'1", 226 pounds) that can work well in the middle if necessary.
Parris Bennett, Sophomore
Bennett is one of those aforementioned "youngsters" who got a shot to jump in here and there last year, and the result of that time (even if limited) is the top of the depth chart for the time being. It's a deep position, so his spot is not secured just yet. But given his speed and ability to make plays in both open space and in the opposing backfield, it's not hard to see why he'll see a huge uptick in time on the field for 2015.
Jonathan Thomas, Sophomore
Thomas is in the same boat as Bennett in terms of experience, and he's also a very clear challenger for the starting role. That's not a bad thing, and if there's a true tie between the two, it could make for a fresher rotation at both this and the weakside spot, depending on the package/who coaches want to see on the field. Thomas showed an ability to get after the football in limited time last season, and that's not hard to see given his 4.5 40-yard dash speed. One way or another, he'll be on the field this fall.
Oliver Vigille, (Redshirt) Senior
... Or hey, maybe the senior Vigille finds his way to the starting lineup in his last year on campus. He's certainly been around and in this scheme long enough to be productive, and when given some extensive playing time last year (Wake Forest), he looked the part. But can the Miami product break through past these younger players, especially when the Orange staff is likely looking toward the future with Thomas and Bennett already? We'll have to see. In the meantime, whether starting or as a reserve, Vigille can and will still make a positive impact on this linebacker group this fall.
Ted Taylor, Junior
Taylor was brought in specifically to help out some questions around the SAM position, so here we are. He'll start low on the depth chart since he's the only one new to this system, but that could change in a hurry if the JUCO transfer picks things up rather quickly. In 2014 at Dodge City (K.S.) Community College, he racked up 84 tackles, which (like everyone else here) should fit in rather nicely with SU's scheme. He's a darkhorse for playing time, though could also be in the mix for a redshirt if Vigille (a senior) elevates his game and keeps Taylor bench-bound.
Terrell Drayton, Sophomore
Drayton's a recent addition via walk-on, and is largely not a known quantity (and as a result, it's doubtful we see him on the field this season). That doesn't mean he'll never play for SU at all, though. Given the team's tradition of quality linebackers, it's a tough spot to make it as a walk-on, but the fact that he's here means he's got "something" the coaches like. Unrelated: his Twitter feed is highly entertaining.
Marqez Hodge, Junior
Hodge started the season as the Orange's starting middle linebacker, a product of getting the best three players out there. But now, after a season as the team's youngest starting linebacker, he ascends to a different role as its experienced veteran. Hodge showed himself a capable middle linebacker -- but one that also stood to gain more from roaming a bit more and rushing the passer. He gets that opportunity in 2015, plus a clean bill of health should show us a renewed sense of urgency and ability. Expect him to cruise past last year's 38 tackles in short order.
Alryk Perry, (Redshirt) Sophomore
He's never seen the field, but that'll change for Perry this fall as he has to jump in and spell Hodge -- at least according to the current depth chart. Perry won't be pushing Hodge for the starting job, but he still serves a key role as depth and energy -- and could even be pushed himself by the next (and last) player on our list. In any case, he'll be rushing the passer from the edge and hopefully causing some mismatches.
Shyheim Cullen, Freshman
As a true freshman, Cullen could end up redshirting given the team's desire to get the most out of his time on the Hill while letting experience play out in front of him. But the Massachusetts product may just be too talented to leave out of linebacker rotation. Cullen's athletic, strong and aggressive, again fitting the mold of your typical SU linebacker. Where his playing time will likely rise or fall sits with how much discipline he can display on the edge. Should he show himself as sound in getting after running backs as he should be with QBs, he could leapfrog into that second spot behind Hodge.
Just like we said right at the onset, this group's about youth -- but also experience. Last year's young guys getting snaps was a welcome side effect of a lost season, and this year's group could reap the rewards. It might seem unsettling to some to see this depth chart littered with juniors and sophomores, but... we've been here before. Recently. And it worked out pretty well. This year's linebackers don't necessarily have to live up to past SU greats right away, They can take some time to get there, especially given what the early slate looks like.
If the Orange pass rush is going to stay afloat, though, there is some extra pressure for these linebackers to produce at a high level before September wraps up. We know what all of them can do in limited action. Now we need to see them step up and be the next Cam Lynch or Dyshawn Davis, etc. -- players who had similarly great expectations thrust upon them and managed to meet and exceed those just the same. Watch this group with excitement this fall. Those unknowns on the depth chart will be pretty "known" soon.