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Syracuse football 2017 position preview: Linebackers

Still one of the Orange’s strongest position groups this year.

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Syracuse Orange fall football camp’s off and running. And that means college football season is OH SO CLOSE. As we wait, we dive into preview season -- where hope springs eternal for fans everywhere (even us!).

Each week, we’ll be profiling one of Dino Babers’s position groups and every player that may (or may not) make an impact this fall. This week, we’re discussing:


Syracuse’s linebackers have been a strength for quite awhile now, and 2017 is no different. Three seniors return in the starting roles, and there’s young depth behind them. The Orange will have one of the ACC’s most veteran linebacker corps., and with a year under their belts in the new system, there’s hope for even greater results. We saw this group figure out their role within the Tampa-2 for a stretch last year. What can they do for an encore?

Middle linebackers

Zaire Franklin, Senior

Franklin’s about to be a three-time captain (something few in program history can say), and is absolutely the heart and soul of this defense. Despite adjusting to an entirely new role in last year’s scheme, Zaire still tallied 101 tackles, two sacks, and a pick. When he started defining his role in the middle of the Tampa-2, the rest of the defense appeared to fall into place (we’re looking at the middle of the season). His presence will once again be a key to this side of the ball improving at all.

Andrew Armstrong, Sophomore

Armstrong picked up 16 tackles in 12 games last year, and already appears to be rounding into his future role as Franklin’s replacement. He has speed and is quick to adapt. And while it’s very early, he does appear to have coverage skills (critical for the MLB spot in this defense). He’ll still be an understudy this year, but last year’s experience should him provide further value shuttling in and out to relieve Franklin.

Troy Henderson, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Henderson came in as a middle linebacker prospect, and while he may find himself inserted outside a bit more now, there’s still a chance he could line up here. He recorded five tackles last year, and added a fumble recovery. Henderson could make a bigger mark on special teams in 2017, while waiting to be called into action at MLB if needed.

Adam Dulka, (Redshirt) Freshman

Dulka’s a walk-on, and at 5-foot-9, he’s not necessarily your typical size for linebacker in this system. But he’s a strong tackler and a localish (Buffalo) kid who picked us over Tulane. It would seem unlikely he sees the field much, but a special teams role could be possible.

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Strong-side linebackers

Jonathan Thomas, Senior

Thomas was once one of the quickest players on the team, and he still might be, though obviously Babers has recruited a ton of speed in recent years. He set a career-high in tackles last year with 52, recorded his first sack, picked up four tackles for loss and recovered a fumble (he forced two). Thomas’s ability to cover in the flat will be critical to stopping SU from getting gashed by the short pass game like they have.

Kielan Whitner, Junior

Shifting into the front-seven from the safety position may not be a huge adjustment for Whitner in this system, given the demands on linebackers to play in coverage. He had 35 tackles and an INT last season, and the thought is that he can translate those skills to the SAM role, where the team has admittedly fallen a little short in defending against the pass. We’ll see if he’s able to push Thomas through fall camp.

Shyheim Cullen, (Redshirt) Sophomore

A special teams standout last year, Cullen plays bigger than he is and is a weight room fanatic. Whitner’s arrival at the SAM could cut into his playing time at linebacker, but regardless, he’s a player who will find his way onto the field this season given his tackling ability and hard-hitting style.

Kadeem Trotter, Freshman

Trotter could eventually end up at safety, but he’ll at least get a shot to play linebacker first (especially given the logjam at safety right now). The Ohio product showed a penchant for getting into the backfield in high school, something that could end up being an upside if this scheme decides to blitz a bit more (which had some success in 2016).

Weak-side linebackers

Parris Bennett, Senior

Despite putting up a monstrous 110 tackles last season, Bennett’s not getting many looks from preseason lists. But forgetting about the outside threat is a big mistake given how he’s been able to disrupt opposing offenses. Bennett gets into passing lanes, forces fumbles and had 6.5 tackles for loss last year. If Brian Ward decides to let him loose, this defense could be much more fun this year.

Ryan Guthrie, Junior

Guthrie put up huge numbers in junior college (25.5 TFLs last year), and even a fraction of that production would be a welcome addition. Again, assuming there’s more blitzing from the defense this year, Guthrie will be a key figure there. At Ellsworth Community College, he was a regular in opposing backfields, causing havoc and turnovers. We should be excited to see what we’ll get from the transfer.

Austin Valdez, (Redshirt) Senior

Valdez has more Tampa-2 experience than anyone on the roster right now, playing under Dino Babers for two years at Bowling Green. He had 58 tackles last year, which would’ve ranked fifth on the Orange team. We’ll see where he fits into the rotation, but his short ramp to understanding the system could be a major asset.

Nadarius Fagan, Freshman

Fagan was one of Syracuse’s top-rated recruits for the 2017 cycle, and arrived on campus in time for spring ball. That extra time should help him acclimate to the scheme more easily, but he’s definitely a redshirt candidate given the experience and depth around him. He could end up pushing to start in 2018, however.

Tyrell Richards, Freshman

Richards will eventually inhabit a major role in this defense, but it’s going to take a year or so for the veterans to graduate. His size (6-foot-4, 212 pounds) makes him a tantalizing talent on the edge, and his high school numbers show he was a pro in defending the pass. Still, for now, he’s another likely redshirt candidate.

Tim Walton, (Redshirt) Freshman

Walton was covered last week, and we said he’d play on the defensive line if he was needed there. He’s needed there far more than linebacker, so expect him there.

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All three senior linebackers were among the top five tacklers on the team last year, something that should pay big dividends as the defense continues to find itself in the second go-around in the Tampa-2. Half of these players were recruited to play the position in an entirely different way, as you’re likely well aware. So that does come with growing pains -- some of which may still linger a bit.

That said, there were signs things were turning the corner mid-year, before injuries ravaged the rest of the defense. If this group can stay healthy and find the balance between coverage and pressure, we could see welcome improvement. They’ll never hold teams to less than 20 points. But better tackling and coverage at least stops us from seeing more 40-plus point efforts from opponents.