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Syracuse football 2016 report card: Defensive line

Pressure was hard to come by this fall.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

While the Syracuse Orange went 4-8 for the second consecutive year, it was far from the same 4-8 the team saw in its final season under Scott Shafer. In Dino Babers’s first campaign, SU’s offense looked far more capable and the team looked more competitive overall. They also dealt with a boatload of injuries and a difficult schedule — both of which scuttled chances to improve in the win column this year.

Still, after what was an admittedly fun season, it’s worth looking back to see which units did well and which failed to, and how that impacted the Orange’s success or lack thereof.

We continue with...

Defensive line

A lot changed for this group between 2015 and 2016. Four players left the program, including standout Ron Thompson, who declared for the draft. Inexperience and a slim depth chart were the prevailing narratives as the new season got started. It would remain that way throughout the year.

The Orange never did get much of a push, as their front four found themselves undersized and up against some of the country’s better offensive lines and tight ends all year. Looking at the All-ACC teams, SU faced 11 of 15 linemen honorees and all three tight ends. It’s tough to conceive how Syracuse could’ve done much better up front against that type of talent. They certainly couldn’t have done much worse.

Syracuse allowed 35 rushing touchdowns in 2016, which was tied for 121st in the country. Just four teams (Arkansas, Texas Tech, Florida Atlantic, Oregon) fared worse stopping opponents from reaching the end zone on the ground. Long rushing plays from scrimmage followed suit, whether it was gains of 20, 30, 40 or more. Overall rushing defense — largely determined by the line -- was 108th in total yards allowed (2,700) and 118th in yards per carry allowed (5.43).

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

They failed to fare much better against the pass. SU managed just 16 sacks on the year, and just 13 of those came vs. FBS competition. Those numbers were 114th and 115th, respectively, on the year. Tackle for loss measurements were similarly uninspiring. Syracuse tallied just 58 on the year, which was 108th in the country. Though admittedly, they made those stops count. The Orange’s 261 tackle for loss yards were 82nd — still a much better figure than you’d think given the total.

Without explaining all of these numbers away, you can see how it all happens given the opposition (see a few paragraphs back), as well as what SU was dealing with on their own roster. Grad transfer De’Jon Wilson was the only upperclassman taking snaps on the line, and even then, he wasn’t seeing the lion’s share of snaps. Just four defensive linemen saw action in all 12 games, and two of those players (Kendall Coleman, McKinley Williams) were true freshmen.

No defensive lineman recorded more than 33 tackles (Chris Slayton). Only two linemen (Slayton with 10, Josh Black with four) were among the team’s top five in tackles for loss. Steven Clark, who potentially has the most raw talent of any linemen on the team was either injured or saw two blockers all year, leading to just 1.5 TFLs in nine games.

You see where all of this leads...

The major advantage of an incredibly young and tested defensive line one year is that the group comes back improved the following season. While Syracuse’s front four had its hands full in 2016, some pieces in place for the future. As a group, SU’s line was outplayed for much of the year, but the reasons for that were obvious.

Balancing the challenges and (lack of) actual performance make this a difficult unit to grade, but “incomplete” certainly seems like a cop-out as well. It may seem harsh, though again, the hope is that the pieces come together because of this year’s trials. Even without greater success for the defensive line as a group, several individuals looked the part. And for that, we can at least be optimistic down the road.

Final Grade: C