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Syracuse 2018 spring football preview: Defensive line

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We took a week off due to three basketball games last week, but we’re back at football previews now.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 Syracuse Orange football season has unofficially started with spring practice up and running a couple weeks ago. And those will run all the way through April 13, when SU hosts its spring game on a Friday night.

Syracuse has given us an early look at depth charts on both sides of the ball for 2018. Now, we’re digging into each position to preview what could happen this spring and how that prepares SU for this fall. If you missed last week’s (two weeks ago’s) topic, here’s our look at the Orange’s offensive line.

Today’s topic:

Can Syracuse’s defensive line stay healthy enough to improve?

Who’s on campus?

Everyone except Kayton Samuels, who elected to transfer.

At the end spots: Kingsley Jonathan, Alton Robinson, Kendall Coleman, Jake Pickard, Justin Ellis, Brandon Berry and Zach Morton — though Berry, Pickard and Coleman are all still coming back from injuries. Syracuse tackles include McKinley Williams and Chris Slayton, the team’s two best defensive linemen. Plus Shaq Grosvenor, Kenneth Ruff, Curtis Harper, Josh Black and Chis Elmore. Black’s also coming back from injury on his end. Elmore comes to the defensive side of the ball after playing fullback last year. Obviously tackle’s more of a need right now.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Ummm... no one right now.

Though worth noting that Caleb Okechukwu could be categorized as a defensive end. 247Sports has him listed as one. But we’ll see if he ends up there or at outside linebacker when he arrives.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Can this group get healthy enough to show improvement?

That’s really been the defensive line’s biggest issue in recent seasons. Not so much on the interior, as Slayton, Williams and the departed Samuels held down a three-man rotation in there for much of the last couple seasons. But on the edge, it’s been a revolving door of would-be pass-rushers and inexperience being thrust into action.

As mentioned, four key contributors are still not 100-percent back for spring practice, and that’s certainly worrisome for the reps needed to get this unit where it needs to be (especially with the linebackers likely to take a step back). The good thing this year, however, is that so many young players have experience at this point that they can probably withstand some absences and have valuable depth in place now.

Despite being a late addition last year, Robinson got extended starting run and led the team in sacks with five. Jonathan also saw significant field time, as did virtually everyone else save Morton (redshirt) and Ellis (two games). That’s bound to be helpful this season.

Will we see more blitzing?

Early in 2017, defensive coordinator Brian Ward seemed to be willing to try some new things within the Tampa-2 scheme to make up for a lack of speed in the secondary. One of those was blitzing -- not a typical function of this defense, but one that seemed to at least make some positives when it worked well (games against Clemson, FSU, Pitt). Still, the Orange defensive line caused very little havoc compared to most in the country, coming in at 93rd overall.

The speed and ability Robinson showed on the outside is going to be critical toward changing all of that. And if paired with a healthy Coleman and/or Berry, the chances of that improve. You know you’ll get a push from inside, though it’s largely predicated on stopping the run. Any pressure likely comes from outside in the form of the three players mentioned above, plus maybe Ellis (a prolific sack artist before arriving at SU) and linebacker Ryan Guthrie (JUCO TFL leader in 2016).

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Can Syracuse add any players on the line this offseason?

They can, but Dino Babers won’t commit to whether they will or not (can’t blame him there). Striking out on the line -- a position of need -- is the lone problem you can really have with this 2018 recruiting class. So ideally, a grad transfer or JUCO player could really help provide another experienced body. Plus, we have the roster space anyway.

That said, you also can’t go to that well forever. There are multiple JUCO transfers on the line here already, and De’Jon Wilson didn’t necessarily work out when he came over from Colorado a couple years ago. JUCO and grad additions can be a good temporary boost. But at some point, you have to be able to add a few new players each season to have four- and five-year depth. Perhaps Harper and Morton (both redshirted last year) are a substitute for that.

Diagnosing how the run defense fell off a cliff

Among the greatest mysteries of last season were what happened to the run defense after such a strong start. Through eight games, the Orange allowed just two games of over 150 yards rushing (151 for LSU, 256 for NC State). Then in the final four, three opponents had at least 333 yards on the ground — and Louisville topped the list with 411.

Part of that can be blamed on the lack of experience and depth to deal with injuries. But teams seemed to figure out something in that front four for SU that was just exploited over and over again. At both the quarterback and running back spot, opponents were run heavy (like NC State was earlier in the year), and found no trouble picking up five yards per carry.

This year, the team will need to balance out the blitz vs. run-stopping, and put players in position to defend both the run and pass on any given play. Gambles can pay off, but not for full seasons. SU’s line was read like a book late in the year. They can’t be again if they’re going bowling.