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Syracuse football 2016 report card: Linebackers

New system, same linebackers anchoring the defense.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-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.

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Transitioning to the Tampa-2 was supposed to be a challenge for Syracuse’s linebackers this year. The position had largely been focused on generating pressure under Scott Shafer, and the new scheme called for them to be more of a factor in pass coverage instead.

While the pass coverage aspect of it all still has some ways to go, 2016 reaffirmed that Syracuse’s linebackers are the lifeblood of this defense. The veteran group showed improvement week to week, disrupted passing lanes, and also managed to embrace its old style of play at the same time, too.

Both Parris Bennett (110) and Zaire Franklin (101) tallied 100 total tackles for the first time in their respective careers, finding ways to get in on stops in all parts of the field. With the defensive line struggling to make a push up front, and the young secondary finding itself out of position a lot, it put the onus on the linebackers to shut down opposing offenses. While the yardage and scoring of opponents may not reflect much in the way of the linebackers being successful there, they were the only defensive position group to find a modicum of success week-in and week-out.

Franklin, the defensive captain, had the most pressure on him to figure out his new role on the fly. Returns in the first couple games drew questions on the adjustment — the middle linebacker spot is a much different position in the Tampa-2. But by the UConn game, the junior arrived as the force this defense needed.

Along with the high tackle numbers, Franklin had an interception, a forced fumble, three pass break-ups and 10 tackles for loss (including two sacks). He was honored twice as the ACC’s top linebacker of the week, and his biggest games seemed to come when the Orange needed it the most. His work against UConn and Virginia Tech was critical in those victories.

Bennett also found his way to impact the game, providing help coverage in the flat when needed, while generating some pressure on the outside. He exhibited a nose for the football too, with three forced fumbles and a pick. With him and Franklin getting into passing lanes with increasing frequency during the year, it altered quite a few throws and gave opponents worries when there was no pass rush to be found.

Beyond those two standouts, other Orange linebackers were in on the act all year too. Jonathan Thomas managed four tackles for loss and a couple forced fumbles (plus a pick). Ted Taylor, Andrew Armstrong and Marqez Hodge also contributed to the group’s efforts, generating pressure, getting to ball carriers behind the line and putting their hands on the football. It wasn’t “ball disruption.” But it used elements of it to still keep the defense afloat when traditional pressure and coverage weren’t working.

Syracuse’s linebackers faced the biggest uphill battle of any defensive position group in the new Tampa-2 scheme. And yet, were the only one to pass with flying colors. Things weren’t exactly perfect in 2016, but considering what was going on around them, it’s a wonder the linebackers were able to make the strides they did. The position will continue to evolve as they adjust more to the scheme. But in the meantime, they’ve found ways to remain effective while mashing the old and new mandates of the position together. That’s not a bad thing at all, especially considering the outcome.

Final Grade: B