The Syracuse Orange football season is just around the corner now (it's less than a month away, in fact). Just as in years' past, we'll preview a different SU position group each week to get ready for the new year of football. Last week it was the the team's incredibly thin defensive line. This week:
Zaire Franklin, Junior
Franklin could've caved under the pressure last year as one of just four sophomore captains in Syracuse history. Instead, he led the Orange in tackles (81), was second in tackles for loss (11) and added two sacks from his middle linebacker spot. He, along with the entire linebacker group, needed help in coverage in 2015 -- but that's something that can (and likely will) change. He's your starting MLB again, but keep an eye out for how he transitions to a more coverage-focused role in the Tampa-2.
Troy Henderson, (Redshirt) Freshman
Henderson came to Syracuse with some high expectations in 2015, and this season, we'll see if he gets to start fulfilling them. Franklin has largely fulfilled the entire MLB role with minimal assistance, meaning this is a golden opportunity for the slimmer (down to 216 pounds) Henderson to make an impact. As a high school player, he was much more focused on getting behind the line of scrimmage, which could slow the transition to his new, key coverage role.
Kyle Kleinberg, Sophomore
Unlike Henderson, Kleinberg saw in-game action last season, though it was largely on special teams. With a thinner middle linebacker rotation, the walk-on will probably find himself contributing there occasionally. But once again, his special teams talents (he had four tackles last year) will be the focus. Similar to the rest of the team's linebackers, he'll need to shift quickly from blitzing to coverage. He does have the size and quickness to do so.
Tim Walton, Freshman
At Michigan's Cass Tech, Walton was a standout inside linebacker, and you can probably see him doing more of the same at Syracuse. It's likely he redshirts this year, especially given the logjam of youth in front of him. But whether he first plays this year or next, he's a proven strong tackler and a player that can drop back in coverage -- a perfect fit for what the position calls for.
Parris Bennett, Junior
The quick Bennett is a returning starter though he'll now get plugged in at the clearly-defined weakside linebacker spot (instead of strongisde). To better fit the new scheme's demands, he's dropped 10 pounds this spring (down to 208), which will further assist him in both stopping the run and defending the pass. Run-stopping is a key role for the WLB in the Tampa-2 and Bennett, who was SU's third leading tackler despite missing four games, is well-suited to meet those demands.
Marqez Hodge, Senior
Hodge started all season at the weakside position, but now moves to a reserve role in 2016. That doesn't mean he'll see the field less, however. And to be honest, bringing him in off the bench could actually increase his productivity. As a junior, Hodge seemed to regress slightly as a blitzer, which could mean the new defense is a welcome move. He'll focus on stopping the run, though there's always the off-chance we still see him blitz from time to time.
Shyheim Cullen, (Redshirt) Freshman
Cullen came to Syracuse as a high upside player; a strong athlete on the outside who could pressure the QB. It was a perfect fit for Scott Shafer's scheme. Utilizing that same strength and speed on the outside now, he'll be tasked with run-stopping instead. If he remains third on the depth chart this season, it'll set him up well in terms of playing time so he can jump in when Hodge departs after 2016. Even if he shifts down to fourth, special teams snaps will still provide a ton of value as veteran linebackers graduate in the coming years.
Alryk Perry, (Redshirt) Junior
Currently fourth on the WLB depth chart, Perry's a mystery in that he didn't see the field much in 2015, but may be most ready to transition from pass blitzing to run containment. As a high school player in Georgia, most of his visits behind the line were to stop running backs, not passers. The shuffle between him and Cullen in the third weakside spot could be a week-to-week change depending on matchups.
Adam Dulka, Freshman
Dulka, a walk-on, may be on the smaller end at 5-foot-9, but he made a living both giving out and taking hits as a two-way (linebacker, running back) player in high school. A sure tackler -- 106 stops as a junior -- that already appears close to college playing weight at 226 pounds, he seems to be a natural fit for the heavy-on-run-stopping weakside role as it currently stands, though redshirting or special teams seems likely this year.
Jonathan Thomas, Junior
One of Syracuse's speedier options, it's not surprise that Thomas shifted into a starting role on the post-spring depth chart. Few linebackers looked capable in coverage in 2015, yet Thomas found himself rising to the occasion more often than not. His quickness is an asset coordinator Brian Ward's surely identified already. Now we'll see if he balance pass defense and taking cues from the MLB there, with some potential blitzing in a traditional strongside role.
Ted Taylor, Senior
Taylor's playing time varied quite a bit from game-to-game, but the JUCO transfer was certainly a factor on the blitz, getting to the quarterback twice (tied for fourth on the team). He'll still blitz some in the Tampa-2. But if his occasional nickelback usage in spring was any indication, he's going to be in coverage more often from the SLB spot. Thomas may be better suited there, but they'll both find themselves defending out wide.
Eric Anthony, Senior
Further evidence that the SLB spot is heading toward a coverage focus: former strong safety Anthony is now third on the depth chart there. The walk-on brings value from a pass defense standpoint, as well as rotational depth. He's been special teams to this point in his career, but expect to see him provide relief to Thomas and Taylor as opponents are certain to throw on Syracuse to test the new scheme early.
Terell Drayton, Junior
Drayton will get most of his early playing time on special teams at Syracuse. The walk-on just joined the roster last season, but failed to see the field at all in 2015. While overall, Drayton possesses a similar build to the other SLBs, he's a bit on the higher end weight-wise, which could mean any appearances he makes are in the middle and from the weakside (if at all).
Andrew Armstrong, Freshman
When Armstrong committed, he indicated that the Orange coaches don't plan to redshirt him and that he could plug in at any of the three linebacker spots. We'll see if all that's true or not. But in any case, he does have the tools to succeed at any of those roles. Due to his coverage ability, speed and experience a strong safety, this seems like the best fit for now. But he's one to watch as freshman roles shake out more this month.
Zack Lesko, Freshman
Lesko is a walk-on, but garnered interest from Babers's staff while they were at Bowling Green. Like fellow frosh walk-on Dulka, he was a two-way Ohio high school player and that athleticism appeals to what Ward wants to implement on this side of the ball. He'll either redshirt or play special teams in 2016, but there could be a future for the good hands of this former wide receiver.
The linebacker position has been a strength for nearly a decade no, and that's no different in 2016. The Orange boast both experience and depth, with five different players coming in with starting experience. SU's challenge, of course, will be to mold these former "havoc"-creating blitz agents into run-stoppers and (most importantly) cover men. There aren't a ton of guarantees it works out in year one. But given the high caliber of athletes across the board at linebacker, we might be in for a better showing than we expect right now. Ward's defense, should it exceed lower expectations this fall, will be dependent on this group most of all.