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Syracuse football 2018 position preview: Defensive line

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Replacing the entire linebacker group puts more onus on the line than we’ve seen in years.

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

The 2018 Syracuse Orange football season is fast approaching, and that means position previews for SU’s entire roster.

Each week leading up to kickoff, we’re profiling one group and every player suiting up at that position this fall. Last week, we discussed the offensive line. This time, we move onto:

Defensive line

The Tampa-2 isn’t a blitz-heavy scheme, but the trade-off there is getting containment. For an injury-ravaged Syracuse team last year, they failed to get much of either from the defensive line. Sure, things might have looked improved on third down for the first two-thirds of the year. But then the front seven was exploited for big plays — yet they weren’t necessarily getting behind the line enough to warrant that sort of thing.

Again, though, that’s where the injuries come in. And no matter the scheme, it’s tough to withstand the lack of depth or healthy bodies that the Orange trotted out in 2017. With minimal losses this time around (aside from Kayton Samuels, who takes his major contributions to Indiana as a grad transfer), the hope is that continuity and experience can start to make an impact.

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

Defensive ends

Kendall Coleman, Junior

Coleman played in just eight games last year while dealing with multiple injuries, but still managed 28 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. On a per-game basis, those numbers were improved from his freshman year, which makes you think he could progress once again this fall. Coleman being able to apply pressure on the outside is critical to this pass rush becoming something worthwhile this season.

Alton Robinson, Junior

Despite the uncertainty on the opposite side of the line, Robinson became a bit of a one-man wrecking crew, tallying five sacks and a total of 30 tackles despite only getting on campus in August last year. with a full offseason to understand the scheme, he’s a real threat for double-digit sacks this year. He becomes even more effective if Coleman is back at full speed.

Brandon Berry, (Redshirt) Junior

Berry made it through 12 games after transferring in last year, but still sustained some dings and carried an injury into spring this year. Filling in for Coleman, Berry started six games and notched seven tackles two separate times — versus Miami and NC State, respectively. He has some speed on the outside, weighing in at 251 pounds. With luck, SU can put that to more use given the change to a 4-2-5 alignment that may create more havoc.

Kingsley Jonathan, Sophomore

Jonathan didn’t get to log major minutes as a frosh, but still had 1.5 tackles for loss and exhibited some ability to get behind the line of scrimmage. Now in year two, he’ll get a chance to be a contributor with his speed and athleticism while backing up a very similar player in Robinson. Long-term, you have to like Jonathan’s upside as one of the more impressive D-line recruits (on paper) of the last couple classes.

Zach Morton, (Redshirt) Freshman

Morton was taking second-team snaps this spring, but is likely to be out of the primary rotation if the four veteran names above him are healthy. That’s no knock on his ability, however. He has the size and speed to bring pressure off the edge. Now, with a year on campus under his belt, Morton will be able to back-fill for injuries should they occur in 2018 (as they have for most of the last few seasons).

Caleb Okechukwu, Freshman

Syracuse secured Okechukwu’s signature late despite offers from Texas and Arkansas (among others). The D.C.-area product brings a similar build to Morton, and the same type of speed as well. He’s exactly the type of player Syracuse will be recruiting more of in this scheme, though likely at a faster clip than one or two per year (as it has been lately).

Jake Pickard, (Redshirt) Junior

Though Pickard’s been around awhile, he’s failed to see the field much in his time at Syracuse due to injury. Unfortunately, the bug’s bit him again for this season, and we won’t see Pickard until the Notre Dame game (late November) if at all. A healthy Pickard could potentially be on the two-deep, though.

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

Defensive tackles

Chris Slayton, (Redshirt) Senior

Slayton is Syracuse’s best defender this season, with real NFL aspirations. Last year, despite drawing a ton of attention from opposing blockers, he still managed 28 stops and 8.5 tackles for loss; the latter figure being second-best on the Orange in 2017. If SU is going to improve stopping the run this season, that begins with Slayton playing at the same level or even better.

McKinley Williams, Junior

The Orange have a few freak athletes on this team, but Williams may be the most impressive — a 295-pound nose tackle who can do back handsprings. That athleticism gets put to use on the inside of the line, as he record four tackles for loss and 25 tackles overall last year. Now that the starting job is his alone, though, those numbers should rise a bit.

Kenneth Ruff, Junior

Ruff’s gone from a linebacker to an end to an interior lineman over the past three years, and now is his best chance yet to see the field. Ruff is currently one of two potential backups to Slayton, and at the very least, he’ll learn plenty from the veteran on run-stopping. He’ll start to make his case to be next year’s starting defensive tackle this year as part of the rotation.

Josh Black, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Like Ruff, Black also moved inside from his natural position outside (at end), though the latter player does have a stronger body of work beforehand at SU. Black had 21 tackles and four TFLs as an end in 2016. And even though he was injured for most of last season (missed eight games), he still had three tackles for loss in that short time. He’s a potential sleeper on this line if he can stay healthy.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Elmore, Sophomore

Elmore was a fan favorite on the offensive end last year, but he’s pretty likely to stay on the defensive side of things in 2018 based on team needs (save for the occasional goal line carry). He’ll certainly get a shot at seeing the field at nose tackle being Williams’s lone backup. I’m honestly curious if spending time on offense helps him become a better run-stuffer.

Shaq Grosvenor, Junior

After arriving as a JUCO transfer, Grosvenor didn’t play a ton last year, dealing with injuries after logging snaps earlier in the season. With luck, he can be a little bit healthier this time around, though we’ll see if he’s able to push past some of the names above for valuable snaps.

Curtis Harper, (Redshirt) Freshman

Harper is a big dude at 312 pounds, and seems primed to man the middle as a major run-stuffer down the road for Syracuse. His chance may end up being at least a year away, however, given the depth chart. Still, Harper’s experience on the roster last year prepares him better to jump in should injuries strike (again, please no, we’ve dealt with too many lately).

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The spotlight will be on the Syracuse defensive line this year more than it has in years. With the Orange hitting reset on the linebacker corps. and even implementing a new base alignment to deal with it, pressure is a must up front. But can these players make that happen in a scheme (the Tampa-2) that’s not necessarily made for big sack numbers? SU got to opposing quarterbacks just 16 times last year — 113th in the country. That simply doesn’t cut it in the ACC.

This year’s success will be dictated by a combination of what that pass rush (led by Robinson) can do when paired with the run-stuffing controlled by Slayton. If we see something more resembling the early part of last season, when SU held six of eight opponents to 4.5 yards per carry or fewer, there’s a chance for a big turnaround from this defense.