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Syracuse 2018 spring football preview: Offensive line

This group actually showed some progress and now gets arguably its best player back.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The unofficial start of the 2018 Syracuse Orange football season is officially upon us now that spring practice started over the weekend. Those practices 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 topic, here’s our wide receiver and tight end preview.

Today’s topic:

Can Syracuse’s line build on the progress toward the end of last year?

Who’s on campus?

All of last year’s starters, save Jamar McGloster. Plus Aaron Roberts is back in action after missing the entire 2017 campaign with a knee injury. Evan Adams is currently coming back from an injury as well, so it’s unlikely we see much/any of him this spring.

But the first-team is an experienced group. Roberts, Cody Conway, Airon Servais and Sam Heckel have 54 starts between them, with Mike Clark being the lone newcomer. However, Clark can bide his time a bit longer once Adams (21 straight starts) is back in the fold.

Behind those five, Colin Byrne has started before, and Keaton Darney’s seen time as well. Patrick Davis, Dakota Davis and (walk-on) Austin Chandler would all be seeing their first major reps, as would AJ Duerig.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s arriving this summer?

Some reinforcements, though the Orange have started to build some more meaningful depth on the offensive line these past couple seasons. Carlos Vettorello, Willem Froumy and (four star) Qadir White all arrive. Gabe Horan might count too, depending on whether he’s considered a tight end or a tackle. All arrive at an opportune time given the veteran status of many of the current starters.

What was the impact of Roberts’s absence?

Syracuse’s line has been fairly porous these past couple years, but Roberts was largely an exception there (also, running a faster scheme will automatically lend to higher sack numbers without adjusting for tempo). Losing him before SU even took a snap last year showed in some early struggles. Eric Dungey was sacked 12 times in the first five games, and MTSU particularly got after him with some of Scott Shafer’s old blitzing tactics.

The even more noticeable struggle for the Orange was in trying to run from the backfield, though. Through September, SU averaged just 3.75 yards per carry on the ground -- a figure almost entirely weighted by a 300-yard effort against Central Michigan. Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal were entirely unable to get a push on the inside. Chris Elmore, despite his size, also failed to make much headway up the middle. Those shortcomings were a big hit to Dino Babers’s offense for the second straight season, as dive runs are a staple of the system.

Roberts would’ve helped make a lot of those holes for runners, and potentially decreased the pressure on Dungey early (which may have helped a lot more later). We saw what the run game was able to do once this O-line group got settled last year (averaged over four yards per carry in four of the final five games, including nearly 5.6 vs. Wake). Roberts helps stabilize the unit into something resembling that end-of-year production.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

How well can SU protect Dungey?

It’s no secret that Dungey’s taken a lot of hits over the years, and the sack numbers have been pretty high in recent seasons. However, part of that’s due to the pure number of plays the Orange run (leading to more sack opportunities), and another part is that Dungey can hold onto the ball a little bit longer while trying to make something happen.

So protecting the senior quarterback ends up a layered operation. The offensive line’s not really going to be able to stop him from taking hits running to the perimeter, since he’s rolling outside the pocket. That’s something Dungey himself has to take on. Where this offensive line can improve, however, is reducing the amount of pressure he sees up the middle of the line. Roberts can assist there, and you saw improvement from SU’s line in terms of that protection as last season went on. If that pressure’s reduced, it’s then up to Dungey to release the ball quickly — a key facet of this offense.

I’m not fooling myself into thinking this is suddenly an offensive line full of all-conference players. However, last year did show they were durable (beyond Roberts’s preseason injury) and could even improve over the course of the season given the rigors and tempo of the offense. That’s a big positive.

Could newcomers see playing time?

Barring injury, probably not. As mentioned, this is a veteran group that’s comfortable playing together. The wrinkles were obvious early on when they were still getting a feel for things last year, and the improvement was too as they settled in. There’s little point in breaking up that dynamic just to maybe try and get a new player some burn.

That said, if someone’s truly better, they should have the chance to work their way in. Babers hasn’t done much of a rotation on the line. It’s largely the same five guys every snap. That limits the opportunity for younger players, but also keeps continuity, which is probably more important. Guys like Clark, White and both Davises will have their opportunities in the future, and there’s a lot of upside to those players. The chance is just unlikely to come this year.

Look out for snapping issues

Servais was learning on the fly in many ways last year, and toward the end of games, there was some fatigue showing on snaps that led to broken plays, near-turnovers and hits on the quarterback. It’s tough to demand perfect shotgun snaps for 90-100 plays per game, but that’s sort of how it goes for this offense.

In numerous games, Dungey had to improvise because rhythm and tempo were disrupted by bad snaps in the latter stages. Servais did a quality job there last year, but the Orange need it to be consistent for a full game (and especially in those critical stages of the fourth quarter).