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Syracuse football: Strong-side linebacker is a position battle to watch

Jonathan Thomas hopes to be a permanent fixture in the starting lineup this year.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports’s Stephen Bailey had an interesting article up today about the position battle at strong-side linebacker -- but specifically, around how senior Jonathan Thomas has set himself up to take full control of the starting job there.

Thomas started nine games last year, and ended up fifth on the team in tackles with 52. He was 10th on the roster in 2015, with 34 total.

While he’s seen significant starting time in recent seasons, he’s yet to fully hold onto the starting gig at the Will so far. But that may change this season as he enters his final season.

Our own spring linebackers preview focused in on Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett, primarily, due to their eye-popping numbers and long-time presence in the starting lineup (Franklin’s about to be a three-year captain as well). But Thomas has shown his own speed and agility on the outside that should continue to translate well to this Tampa-2 scheme.

As Bailey notes in his post, Thomas does have some competition for the starting strong-side role, even if he currently sits atop the spring depth chart. JUCO transfer Ryan Guthrie could be the most likely challenger there, given the fact that he possesses the most playing experience beyond Thomas. Shyheim Cullen and Nadarius Fagan also appear poised to push for playing time, along with Andrew Armstrong -- though Armstrong may be the heir apparent at middle linebacker.

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

What will be interesting for Thomas as the spring wears on -- and the team comes back to campus in the summer -- is how he continues to develop in pass coverage. Franklin and Bennett both seemed to find ways to strike a balance between creating disruption in the backfield last season, while also covering receivers. Thomas, on the other hand, was still largely focused on some choice blitzing and creating turnovers via forced fumbles.

Given Thomas’s slimmer build than the other two, it would seem he’d be well situated to get into passing lanes and cover receivers in the open field. We’ll have to wait and see if the numbers come with that potential, however.

With Fagan a potential redshirt, and Guthrie and Armstrong likely plugged in elsewhere among the linebackers, it could come down to Thomas and Cullen for the starting Will spot. Thomas has a clear advantage there in terms of game experience, though Cullen was a key contributor on special teams last season.

It’s unlikely this battle gets resolved this spring, so add the strong-side linebacker position to your running list of competitions to watch before the season gets going.

For more on what’s going on with the linebackers in spring ball, be sure to check out Bailey’s piece, which also features some great quotes from Bennett on how the younger players are all coming along.