With all the hubbub about the Syracuse Orange basketball team making the NCAA Tournament, you might have forgotten that the FOOTBALL team is still in spring practice. I can't necessarily blame you for letting it slip your mind. I just don't agree with it, as you may have figured.
We continue going position-by-position to talk about the pressing issues and questions that may plague us throughout the spring.
Can Syracuse's linebackers switch from a blitz-heavy to a coverage-heavy role?
Who's on campus?
Nearly everybody from last year, which helps. Starters Zaire Franklin, Marqez Hodge and Parris Bennett are all back this spring, though Hodge has been missed time with an injury over the past month. There's some additional experience returning with Kyle Kleinberg and Alryk Perry, plus walk-on junior Terell Drayton. Redshirt freshmen Troy Henderson and Shyheim Cullen are also on campus and participating in practice this spring.
Noticeably absent from the list above are three more linebackers that appear to be taking on different roles this spring. Hernz Laguerre has been practicing with the defensive line, while Jonathan Thomas and Ted Taylor have been serving in nickelback roles. Freshman Kenneth Ruff also came in as a linebacker, but moved to defensive end.
Who's arriving this summer?
Two more linebackers in Andrew Armstrong and Tim Walton. Both are taller (about 6-foot-2), but still maintain a slighter build more fit for the Tampa-2 scheme. Rather than being undersized players that can blitz, they'll be lighter players that can drop back into coverage. Normally, I'd say they're good redshirt candidates, but you never know with the new coaching staff and how they see players fitting into the system.
So what's different about the linebacker position?
Everything, basically. The Tampa-2 calls for linebackers to be experts in coverage, and for the entire defense to run with the middle linebacker as its motor. Syracuse's defense under Scott Shafer called for a blitz-heavy scheme led by the linebacker position. Coverage was never a strong suit for that group, but it also didn't have to be... until the defensive backs fell off far too much, that is. Then last year's struggles by linebackers to defend against the pass came back to bite the team in a big way.
This isn't to say that returning players in the old mold (Hodge, Franklin and Cullen, among others) can't adjust. It's just to point out that they'll be tasked with some new responsibilities and challenges. For someone spending much of their time in the old scheme, the learning curve could be steep but doable. For someone like Cullen or Henderson, that's still fairly new to the program, there's a chance they may be able to shift thinking more quickly.
Why move Taylor and Thomas to nickel?
Counter: Why not? In all seriousness, though, the thinking is probably to make up for the teams' likely struggles in coverage by putting more players out there focused on defending against the pass. Thomas, in particular, fits a nickelback build -- he's big, fast and there were glimpses of him having some ability in coverage even in the old scheme. These guys will still probably be "linebackers" in theory. But having them practice with defensive backs this spring gives Brian Ward's defense some different looks and additional assistance to prevent teams from throwing on them all game.
Are last year's starters likely to stay in place?
A lot of that's dependent on their ability to adapt to a new way of playing. Dino Babers has proven that he's not scared to shake things up a bit and challenge the previous way of doing things. He assuredly respects the time and work put in by Franklin, Hodge and Bennett, and I'm certain he knows that Franklin's a returning captain. If those three -- and again, the rest too -- prove they're up for covering against the pass and helping prevent the short and long gains that victimized SU previously, they'll keep their roles in the startling lineup. If not, they won't. Which brings us to...
Which underclassmen could see increased roles?
Maybe all of them, to be honest. As mentioned, Walton and Armstrong were recruited for this scheme and have the least amount of adjustments to make with regard to playing to pass coverage. Cullen and Henderson were highly regarded when they arrived on campus last year, and project to see a good amount of playing time. If the offense can successfully play at the tempo it wants to, that's going to force opponents to do the same. Ward will need to be able to cycle through fresh bodies on his side of the ball too. Cullen and Henderson will be critical to that ability.
Will linebackers still blitz?
Maybe? It really depends on whether the Orange run a "pure" Tampa-2 or not. In an evolved version of the scheme, outside linebackers can be brought up to help the blitz. Additionally, secondary blitz packages can also be deployed. The end goal for Babers could be to run a pure Tampa-2, but given the depth and experience issues along the line, additional wrinkles may need to be thrown in for execution's sake. We've already seen this above with the linebacker/nickelback distinction applied to Thomas and Taylor. Perhaps Babers and Ward see some benefit to a linebacker corps. that was previously blitz-happy continuing to blitz -- albeit, not at the risk of giving up the middle of the field (where the MLB will need to control for this scheme to work).
The transition at linebacker will be a fascinating one for fans to watch -- and they'll get their first glimpse at the spring game next month, even if Babers elects not to give away too much on either side of the ball. There's an old adage that says you can't teach an old dog new tricks. That may be true, but given the good mix of experience and youth among these linebackers, SU might be able to buck that thinking a bit starting this spring.