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Syracuse football 2017 report card: Defensive line

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Things started well, at least...

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange football program went 4-8 for the third consecutive season. But since I’m not one to let anything die a peaceful death, we’re rehashing the year anyway (while also looking forward a bit, too).

Another injury-riddled season provides plenty to ponder this offseason, and as we’re all acutely aware, there’s a high level of “what if” to Syracuse’s 2017 campaign as well. Between all of that, the difficult schedule and the Clemson win, it’s easy to dig around the results for just about any narrative you want.

We’ll choose a more optimistic view on all of it, but that doesn’t mean we’re avoiding criticism either. Looking back at 2017, we’re going position by position, to see what worked, what didn’t and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or lack thereof).

Next up...

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive line

Going into 2017, demands were high on the Orange defensive front to make strides forward in just about every regard. In 2016, the team was poor against the run and failed to generate much of a pass rush. Its 16 sacks were near the bottom of the country, as were its 58 tackles for loss. The run defense allowed 225 yards per game.

Understanding that wasn’t sustainable, Dino Babers and his staff brought in JUCO reinforcements — which ended up being an even bigger help when Kendall Coleman and Josh Black both missed significant time with injuries. But how did SU’s line perform, comparatively, to the previous year?

  • Sacks: 16
  • TFLs: 67
  • Run defense: 196.67 yards per game

None of that’s really THAT much better than what we saw in 2016.

Now, from an eye-test perspective, we know it was better -- especially at the onset. Even without sacks in the early going of the season, Syracuse did generate more pressure from everywhere on the defense. New additions like Alton Robinson and Kingsley Jonathan exhibited significant success on the outside, while Chris Slayton led what looked like a resurgent run D on the inside of the line.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Games against Pitt and Clemson appeared to be turning points. SU terrorized the Panthers’ Max Browne until he was knocked out of the game, and the Orange’s pressure also forced Kelly Bryant out of action for the Tigers. When Zerrick Cooper took over, the blitz kept up and the young QB looked frazzled throughout his second half of action. It was critical in securing the SU upset.

But then, things sort of fell apart.

After allowing over 151 yards just once (vs. NC State) in the first eight games, Syracuse allowed 200 or more in each of the final four. That’s putting it mildly, too. The 207 rushing yards FSU tallied was actually the lowest figure put up against the Orange in that final stretch. Wake Forest had 371 yards on the ground. Louisville managed 411. Boston College closed things out with a 333-yard effort.

As teams realized how easily they could run on Syracuse, the pass stopped being as big of a focus. The pass-rush was also inconsistent, even if it still managed more than a sack per game over the final four weeks. Teams had about as much time to throw as they could’ve wanted.

Still, despite the lackluster finish on the season, there are things we can build on here. Other than Kayton Samuels, who’s transferring, everyone is back from the 2017 defensive line. Alton Robinson and Chris Slayton combined for 14.5 tackles for loss this season, and could be poised for more as the rest of the position group has even more experience under its collective belts.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

McKinley Williams was a breakout player as a sophomore, even if the numbers don’t look overly gaudy. He had four tackles for loss, but showed a propensity to be involved in big stops and teamed with Slayton to be a critical run-stuffer in the early portions of the year. Their efforts, along with the linebackers, were huge parts of why SU spent much of the season with one of the top third down defenses in the country.

Health (or lack thereof) was arguably the biggest factor in the decline over the course of 2017. And it’s also one of the biggest reasons for optimism going forward with this still pretty young group. Josh Black, Kendall Coleman and Shaq Grosvenor will all be 100-percent next season. Brandon Berry and Robinson get another year in the system. Plus players like Kenneth Ruff and Zach Morton could finally get a bit more time out there as well.

With the linebacker position turning over this offseason, it’ll be critical we see more marked improvement from the defensive line. Because another year like what we saw at the back-end of 2017 could spell disaster for this beleaguered defensive.

Final grade: C