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Syracuse 2017 spring football preview: Linebackers

Strides were made in the Tampa-2 last year, keeping SU’s linebackers the strength of this defense.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

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

As 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 SU’s linebackers power this defense once again?

Who’s on campus?

Most of last year’s players, which means a very experienced group should guide the heart of the Orange defense yet again.

All three starters are back, and anxious to put an exclamation point on the end of their respective careers. Zaire Franklin started slow last year, but excelled as 2016 wore on. Parris Bennett was a force, and Jonathan Thomas also showed strong abilities to adapt to the demands of the new Tampa-2 scheme.

Behind them this spring is a strong group of young players chomping at the bit for an opportunity. Shy Cullen, Andrew Armstrong and Troy Henderson saw the field last year, while Tim Walton, Ryan Guthrie and Nadarius Fagan will be new additions to the mix. Guthrie played in the JUCO ranks previously, while Walton and Fagan would be seeing their first college action.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Syracuse added four linebackers for the class of 2017, but two (Guthrie, Fagan) are already on campus. This summer, Kadeem Trotter and Tyrell Richards will arrive. Trotter may end up at safety (he has a bit of a slimmer build) -- we’ll see what team needs dictate.

What can Franklin and Bennett do for an encore?

Despite being recruited for Scott Shafer’s aggressive system, two of Syracuse’s veteran linebackers were quick to adapt to their new roles. Both Franklin and Bennett each tallied 100 tackles on the season, and the former still managed to record 10 tackles for loss despite the demands on middle linebackers to stay at home.

Even with the strong effort in 2016, the gaudy numbers and strong play from both were largely ignored by ACC voters at the end of the season. With a year under their collective belts, and a better sense of what they’ll need to do in this system, we could end up seeing even better play coming from both in 2017.

Which youngsters could see the field early?

Armstrong appears poised to be Franklin’s successor in the middle, which will mean he’ll get some burn this year — especially given the amount of time this defense is on the field in most games (SU opponents averaged over 31 minutes with the football, which was among 40 highest figures in the country).

He’ll be joined by Cullen, who cut his teeth on special teams play as a redshirt freshman last year, and now seems poised to join the regular linebacker rotation. The Lowell, Mass. native was dealing with an injury earlier in the spring, but seems to be good to go now.

Guthrie isn’t a “youngster” per se, though he is a newcomer at SU. As a JUCO transfer, he didn’t come here to sit, which will mean playing time on the outside on par with what we’d previously seen from guys like Ted Taylor.

Hey, you skipped Nadarius Fagan...

Fagan was one of Syracuse’s most talented commits for 2017, with offers from a host of bluebloods. That means he could be poised to excel on this roster right away. But with a strong stable of senior linebackers starting and the aforementioned second unit ready to jump in, it would make the most sense to redshirt him and let him contend for a starting role in 2017 when the roster opens up a bit.

How much will the defense rely on the linebackers yet again?

Chances are a lot. Syracuse’s defensive line is still a very big question mark, and while the secondary returns a large collection of experience, there’s still doubts about what they can do in this scheme. For the umpteenth straight year, the linebackers will be what steers this defense toward success (or failure).

What else needs to happen for this group to be settled into the Tampa-2?

In the early part of last season, the linebackers were a bit hesitant. The old system required them to be aggressive and blitz a lot, while giving up the middle of the field in many cases. in the Tampa-2, their role is much more conservative -- especially for the middle linebacker. Stay at home, drop back into coverage as necessary, direct traffic while reading the passer. The change was not an easy one, and it’s one of many reasons why the Orange got killed by Louisville in week two.

Whether it was a conscious coaching decision or not, they eventually got some runway to do what they excelled at (creating pressure, getting into passing lanes) while not completely abandoning the Tampa-2 scheme. As we saw against teams like UConn, Virginia Tech and Boston College (along with others), the hybrid approach worked.

If they’re given the freedom to do what they do best, we’ll see quality results yet again from the linebackers. But if they’re forced to do a bit more in coverage and create less pressure, it could mean a step back.


Any other questions or thoughts about the Syracuse linebacker corps. for 2017? Share below.