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Syracuse Spring Football 2016 Preview: Youth Anchors Worrisome Defensive Line

So uhhh... this could be a difficult year for this defensive line.

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange's third week of spring football practice begins. We continue taking a look at the most pressing questions and issues surrounding the team.

Today's topic:

Syracuse's weakest link could be a young, inexperienced defensive line

Who's on campus?

Just one starter, defensive tackle Kayton Samuels. Along with the redshirt sophomore, Steven Clark, Jake Pickard, Anthony Giudice, Chris Slayton are the other big returning names. Trey Dunkelberger and Kenneth Ruff are also on campus, and have changed positions (from tight end and linebacker, respectively) to help fill the depth chart void at defensive end. Hernz Laguerre appears to be taking reps at end as well, as the team looks for any and all solutions at its thinnest position.

Who's arriving this summer?

Help! Specifically, four true freshman that could all end up seeing some playing time this fall given the aforementioned (and will-be-repeated) depth issues. At defensive end, Kendall Coleman, Josh Black and Jaquwan Nelson are all quality options provided they learn the scheme quickly once on campus. McKinley Williams is the lone defensive tackle, but is another player who could challenge the depth chart right off the bat.

The most intriguing element of the defensive line (and defense, overall) will be Delaware State transfer Gabe Sherrod. The fifth-year senior already projects as a potential NFL player, has spent his career getting behind the line of scrimmage and tearing through a variety of different blocking schemes. Expect him to start right away, barring something unforeseen.

How can the defensive end position recover?

Attrition at defensive end has left this group with few answers. Recruited depth like Kenny Carter, Qaadir Sheppard and Amir Ealey are all gone, so the Orange are left with Jake Pickard as the only returning end. As mentioned, Sherrod arrives this summer, as do three freshmen. But this spring, the group has had to make do with what's on campus. Ruff and Laguerre were linebackers, and that transition seems like it would be a little bit easier than what's being asked of Dunkelberger. Still, all three wouldn't have been asked to move unless it was a fit that would help the team and get them more playing time. Eight ends is a better number than we started with. Let's see how many of them can be effective.

Is youth a plus at defensive tackle?

Quite possibly. A continuous stream of injuries led to a lot of playing time for last year's young group. Now, with a year under their belts, SU gets to plug in a group of experienced players who could help make up for some of the problems at end. Clark's obviously the highlight after a promising freshmen season this past fall. But Sameuls, Slayton and Giudice do form a a pretty nice rotation of interior linemen for the Orange. Of course, there's still the concern regarding depth -- these four are it until the summer. But the hope is that if players can stay healthy, for once, that you can really have faith in all four when they're out there.

Can Sherrod be the next Ron Thompson?

Those are big shoes to fill, of course. That said, why not? Thompson's biggest strength was his athleticism, and Sherrod seems to have displayed a ton of it while at Delaware State. As long as he can adjust to the FBS level of play quick (and he likely will), he stands a great chance to continue a high level of production. Since this is a spring preview, we're still waiting to see what he'll look like in a Syracuse uniform. But there are definite causes for optimism.

How does the defensive line's role change in the Tampa-2?

A lot -- and perhaps that helps with previous years' injuries too. Instead of a constant push to blitz, make big plays and create tackles-for-loss, Brian Ward's defense will be a bit more conservative. They'll still apply pressure, but they'll be assisted better by the secondary -- causing coverage sacks without necessarily selling out on the blitz. The run defense, staying at home a bit more than they used to, probably means less big runs than what we saw in 2015 (4.75 yards per rush against).

What does the depth chart look like post-spring?

... And maybe more importantly, will any of that hold true come fall? You can probably pencil in Jake Pickard at one end spot, and Kayton Samuels and Steven Clark at the tackle spots. The biggest mystery is at the other end spot, where any number of newcomers to the position could find themselves there -- at least temporarily. For now, it's probably Ruff's spot based solely on the fact that he's not switching sides of the ball AND isn't transitioning from a different collegiate scheme like Laguerre.

As far as how much that holds, the only clear candidate for change is the spot given to Ruff above. You'd assume Sherrod takes that over. But that doesn't mean the rest of the ends will go unused. Given the speed of things under Dino Babers, the team's going to need fresh legs rotating in plenty. You'll probably see the two-deep cycled through each game. At least until conditioning's up to snuff.

***

Who says I can't be positive? While the above doesn't paint an overwhelming picture for hope given this group's overall lack of bodies, there's a hint of future returns that could encourage fans. Syracuse's defensive line will not be the highlight of the defense in 2016. But if they can find a way to be passable, that could go a long way toward the Orange improving on that side of the ball.