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).
Syracuse’s linebackers were expected to be the guiding force of this defense once again in 2017, and for the most part, the group delivered. All three starters were among the top four tacklers on the team, though just one (Parris Bennett) topped 100 stops. The Orange also got regular contributions from its reserves at linebacker, which helped take the load off those starting seniors but also exposed the team in the middle of the field at times.
The Tampa-2 is coverage-focused, but it also hinges on the linebackers (and especially the middle linebacker spot) to play in coverage. Zaire Franklin, Parris Bennett and Jonathan Thomas were not recruited for such a system, though they still acquitted themselves reasonably well at times.
But a bigger issue may have been that all three still seemed to excel most when filling roles not traditionally associated with linebackers within the scheme. Bennett was the team’s best defender all year, with 115 tackles (11 of which went for a loss). He showed himself an able player making stops in the middle of the field, but his biggest impact was disrupting plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Franklin stayed at home far more often, but still showed himself most comfortable getting after passers. It’s worth noting that more pressure has fallen on Zaire to change his role than any other player within this defense. Being able to adjust into a coverage-focused player while still keeping himself involved in the more havoc-focused roles from the Scott Shafer era is a greater feat than we’ve probably given him credit for.
Elsewhere, Jonathan Thomas and Austin Valdez were able to utilize their speed to operate well in space. Valdez, particularly, was a useful player as a grad transfer given his previous Tampa-2 experience under Dino Babers and Brian Ward. Where they (and all the linebackers) obviously did their best work was when the front four was getting a greater push in the early portions of the season. Unfortunately, as that push disappeared, the quality of linebacker play did sort of go with it.
Julian Whigham highlighted some of the areas where the linebacker play started to fall apart following the Wake Forest game. This was not the beginning of the issues, however. It was the outward expression of them after several weeks of over-pursuit of big plays and issues with positioning.
Again, this isn’t entirely on the linebackers, but with a banged-up defensive line by the later stages of the year, much more was asked of them in order to make stops. They couldn’t get containment on more mobile quarterbacks, and also couldn’t cover the middle of the field in the passing game. With the line giving up about eight yards per carry in the run game over the final weeks, it left them in no-man’s land. That was a large part of the defensive breakdown that completely eroded the positive progress from the start of 2017.
I’m still willing to give this year’s linebacker corps. credit for as good of a job as could’ve been expected of them given the circumstances. But that’s not a complete excuse, either, given that we went into the year knowing a lot would be on their shoulders (as is the case with any Tampa-2 scheme).
On the bright side, this group also seemed to find a way to rotate in youth to hopefully prevent a major drop-off for 2018. Valdez won’t be back, and neither will the three senior starters. But Andrew Armstrong and Ryan Guthrie got enough burn that they should be able to slot in without issue next year. That third spot’s up for debate, but players like Kielan Whitner and Shyheim Cullen (among others) have also seen the field enough to reduce the concern, even if linebackers are rotated significantly more in 2018 than they have been in the past.
Whether defenses or teams have been good or bad in the last 10-12 years, Syracuse has managed to have quality play at linebacker. It may seem like a leap of faith after how 2017 ended. But I’m willing to bet we’ll see success at the spot yet again next year -- in part due to the work put in to develop youth for parts of this season.