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Syracuse 2017 spring football preview: Defensive line

A problematic position group is just as problematic, potentially.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

We’re flipping the calendar to 2017 for Syracuse Orange football. That starts with spring practice, which begins next week on March 21, and goes through April 22.

Before spring football gets going, we’re digging into each position group to preview what might happen in the coming months, and how that sets up the fall’s upcoming season.

Today's topic:

Can a young Orange defensive line show improvement from last season?

Who’s on campus?

Quite a few players from last year (actually, just about everyone, save De’Jon Wilson).

At defensive tackle, Chris Slayton, Kayton Samuels and McKinley Williams are all back, as is Steven Clark -- though Clark is currently dealing with health issues and seems unlikely to participate in spring ball. Without Clark, the Orange end up just three deep at the position, which doesn’t bode well for SU (once again).

Syracuse’s defensive ends seem a lot deeper, even if a lot younger too. Kenneth Ruff, Kendall Coleman, Josh Black and Jake Pickard are all sophomores in some form. Jaquwan Nelson is also on campus, however, he’s currently being withheld from football activities following an arrest this offseason.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Some reinforcements, though mostly on the perimeter (where the team has a few more bodies already).

The Orange add JUCO transfer Brandon Berry, plus true freshmen Kingsley Jonathan and Zach Morton. At defensive tackle, it appears it’s just Curtis Harper, however Chris Elmore will be on campus as well. Elmore could end up back at nose tackle eventually, but for now, he might be a fullback-type player.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Could spring absences create more valuable depth?

Syracuse is down two players this spring without Clark and Nelson. And while that doesn’t help the team’s depth in the short-term, it could help things out quite a bit when the two players return this summer.

We hope for Clark’s speedy and healthy recovery, but without him available this spring, it will give more time for McKinley Williams to get acclimated to the first team rotation. Williams received plenty of snaps last year, but the more he can find time with the first-team defense, the more ready he’ll be to jump in this fall as needed.

Nelson’s absence won’t open up a starting defensive end spot (he’s a redshirt freshman this year), but it does allow some of the names lower on the the depth chart to move up without as much competition this spring.

Will added weight make a difference?

Tuesday’s roster update shows a heavier group across the line, and even if it knocks down a little bit of the speed these players may have had when they arrived, it should help them get a greater push against the run.

Syracuse allowed 35 rushing touchdowns, 5.43 yards per carry, and 225 yards per game. It’s important that the returning players remember just how poor of a push they had against opposing lines, and improve upon it. Against an even tougher schedule that includes strong and talented runners at Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, LSU, Miami, Pittsburgh and elsewhere, there’s little room for error. The size added now and through the offseason must improve a 108th-ranked run defense or the Orange stand zero chance of hanging around against most opponents.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Can Syracuse generate a pass-rush at all?

Last year, the Orange managed just 16 sacks as they blitzed infrequently (all part of the Tampa-2) and let opposing quarterbacks complete passes at will. It was rock bottom for a line that’s been on a downward spiral when it comes to sacking QBs. After a top-20 unit managed 36 sacks in 2013, Syracuse had 27 in 2014 (61st) and 23 (81st) in 2015 before last year’s negligible performance.

SU faces seven top-40 passing offenses from 2016 (not accounting for departures). If they can’t generate pressure, it’s guaranteed to be another losing season.

What adjustments need to be made in the Tampa-2?

Creating a bottleneck in the middle, versus simply blitzing opponents into turnovers and incomplete passes. In 12 games, Orange foes completed 57.6 percent of passes, which was actually a figure in the top half of the country. But they allowed nearly nine yards per pass (bottom-three in the FBS).

As much as you’ll took a look at the secondary for those abysmal showings, it starts with pressure and containment up front. Even forcing a lower percentage of completions ends up futile if you’re defending more attempts.

Syracuse’s line has to find the balance between the old haphazard blitz and the new, regimented one, to stop offenses from simply plowing right through the front four via the run and pass.


What else needs to happen with this front four in 2017 to fix what was a very rough effort last year? Share your own thoughts below.