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Syracuse 2018 spring football preview: Linebackers

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The team’s strongest position group for a decade also has the most turnover this year.

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

The 2018 Syracuse Orange football season has unofficially started with spring practice up and running in early March. Those run all the way through April 13, when SU hosts its spring game on a Friday night (and broadcast on ACC Network Extra).

Syracuse already gave us an early look at depth charts on both sides of the ball for 2018. Since then, we’ve been digging into each position group to preview what could happen this spring and how that prepares SU for this fall. If you missed last week’s topic, here’s our look at the Orange’s defensive line.

Today’s topic:

How does Syracuse replace all three starting linebackers without much drop-off?

Who’s on campus?

Well, it’s probably best to start with who is no longer on the roster -- most importantly, three-year captain Zaire Franklin. He, along with Parris Bennett, Jonathan Thomas and Austin Valdez are all gone. That’s four of SU’s top seven tacklers from last season, and the only four linebackers with any starting experience for that position group at the FBS level.

In their place is a lot of youth and inexperience, but players who have been around the program for at least a year or two nonetheless.

The early spring depth chart lists 2017 JUCO transfer Ryan Guthrie manning the middle, with Andrew Armstrong and Kielan Whitner at the weakside and strongside, respectively. Armstrong is the leading returning tackler in the linebacker unit, with 13 last year.

Immediately behind them are Shy Cullen, Tyrell Richards and (January JUCO arrival) Lakiem Williams. Kadeem Trotter, Tim Walton, Nadarius Fagan and (true freshman) Juan Wallace are as well, along with walk-on Zach Lesko.

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

Who’s arriving this summer?

Tre Allison, one of SU’s late flips (from SMU) right before the early signing period in December. I’d say that Caleb Okechukwu could also be in the mix for outside linebacker consideration if he doesn’t slot in at defensive end.

How do you begin to replace the group that just graduated?

Well... that’s really the biggest question for the Orange defense this year -- and the team, aside from the constant concerns about Eric Dungey’s health.

As mentioned, the four departed seniors were all among the top seven in sacks last year. Combined, they made up 37 percent of Syracuse’s stops in 2017. That’s a big number, clearly, especially for a team that struggled to make tackles at the line of scrimmage by late last year.

Franklin, most of all, was also a leader on and off the field as a team captain. That sort of thing doesn’t just get replaced by production either. He may not have been tailor-made for the system (none of those guys were, save maybe Bowling Green grad transfer Valdez), but his experience and smarts about the game helped make up for that questionable fit within the demands of the Tampa-2 scheme.

This year’s group will need a leader fast, and there are numerous candidates. Better fit for the system and more clearly-defined roles that align to the Tampa-2’s core tenets around linebackers in coverage will probably help out a bit as well.

Who steps up among this year’s linebackers?

Linebacker has been SU’s consistent strength for about a decade now, and every time we think the turnover’s going to be too much for them to deal with, things usually end up working out just the same. Still, I’d argue that no linebacker group has been as important to this team or defense as Franklin, Bennett and Thomas (and Valdez) were.

If you’re looking for the names that could make the biggest impact this season, I’d trust in Armstrong and Guthrie, while Whitner’s potential comes from his former position in the defensive backfield. Armstrong has been learning under Franklin for two years now, so he’s a candidate to become a vocal leader early with that sort of tutelage already under his belt.

It is probably Whitner who makes or breaks the linebackers, though. For the last two years, defensive coordinator Brian Ward has had to play the middle in terms of forcing players to conform to a scheme versus having the scheme conform to them. Plugging in Whitner on the outside looks much more like a Tampa-2 than anything else we’ve seen from SU since Babers took over.

Does Guthrie fit at middle linebacker?

Franklin’s shoes are big ones to fill, and some of us may have been surprised to see Guthrie filling them (instead of Armstrong, who backed him up previously). In the Tampa-2, the middle linebacker role is critical to the defense in both pass coverage and stopping the run. Before he arrived at Syracuse, Guthrie’s claim to fame was as a player able to get after the ball-carrier behind the line and cause havoc at the line of scrimmage. That doesn’t mean he can’t play in coverage. It just seems like a stranger fit given what we know about the scheme.

Syracuse saw a lot of success early last year when utilizing linebackers to apply both run and pass pressure. As much as Whitner seems like a player who could be much more atypical of the Tampa-2, putting Guthrie in the middle might be Ward willing to break from the system a bit.

Which young players could get some run this year?

The starters may be the three most obvious playmakers, but a healthier rotation of players at linebacker could help make up for the lack of starting experience (and the tax put on them last year, when they were the only line of defense for seemingly games on end). Richards has already had a busy spring, and Williams does bring JUCO experience with him. Cullen’s not a young player, but has shown promise on special teams and has the sort of hands where it would be interesting to see him in coverage.

Most are probably curious about Fagan as well, given the hype he arrived with at SU after receiving numerous bigger-name offers as a recruit. He’s a very physical athlete and a player that could be a disruptive force for this defense if plugged in for 2018.