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Syracuse football 2018 position preview: Linebackers

Experience is minimal, but that doesn’t necessarily spell doom.

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

The 2018 Syracuse Orange football season is nearly here, 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 chatted about the defensive line’s potential upside. This time, we move onto:


For a decade or more, linebacker has been the top position group for Syracuse’s defense. No matter how much experience — or lack thereof — returned, Orange linebackers seemed to constantly drive success on that side of the ball. The Tampa-2 switch Dino Babers brought along was supposed to double down on that idea, and it did these past couple seasons. But now, there’s a new wrinkle involved.

Without much experience at linebacker and minimal success defending against the pass lately, Syracuse transitions to a 4-2-5 for 2018 in the hopes of turning things around and also compensating for a potentially rough area. And while there’s upside potential for this to work out, it does mean less playing time for the team’s stable of young linebackers in the immediate term. If the 4-2-5 works, that’s a palatable outcome. If not, then it’s back to square one when the two remaining seniors graduate after 2018.

Kielan Whitner, Senior

Prior to 2017, there was talk of Whitner moving from safety to linebacker, but injuries forced him back into the secondary when he wasn’t on special teams. But given the need for linebackers to play in coverage in this scheme, Kielan could be the perfect fit as a starter the weakside now. Though he only had eight tackles last year, he had a combined 68 in his first two seasons at SU. He’s coming in 2018 as a leader on this defense.

Ryan Guthrie, Senior

Guthrie will man the middle, a role that may not necessarily seem like a perfect fit for a player that once recorded 25.5 TFLs in a season in the JUCO ranks. Yet, he also has a penchant for making stops, showed play-making ability in limited action for Syracuse last year, and has the size (224 pounds) to stay agile in coverage. Even with the alignment switch, he’ll be just as crucial as Zaire Franklin was at MLB.

Shyheim Cullen, (Redshirt) Junior

With a senior-heavy linebacker group in front of him, Cullen hasn’t gotten a lot of chances on defenses — though he’s still made a name for himself on special teams, recovering a blocked punt in each of the last two seasons. It seems he’ll finally get his shot this year, though, as one of the hardest hitters on the team. His strength and speed should be put to good use backing up Whitner outside.

Andrew Armstrong, Junior

Armstrong backed up Franklin at MLB last year, and now sits behind Guthrie this season, but with more opportunities for playing time. At 228 pounds, he comes into 2018 as one of the team’s heaviest linebackers and also one of its most experienced (had 13 stops last season). The heady player will be heard from plenty, even without lining up with the starting unit.

Lakiem Williams, Junior

The JUCO transfer spent the last two years at Butte College (in California), grabbing over 60 tackles per season and finding plenty of ways to get into the backfield. Despite weighing in at 234 pounds now, he played quite a bit at running back in high school and has the sort of athleticism on the outside Syracuse needs. We’ll see if he can break into this year’s rotation or have to wait ‘til 2019.

Tim Walton, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Walton heavy (in a good way) at 232 pounds and could potentially even flex to defensive end if need be. But for now, he’s with the linebacker group and presents an interesting future possibility on the outside if we transition back to a base 4-3 down the road. Special teams is his most likely area of contribution for 2018, though.

Nadarius Fagan, Sophomore

Fagan arrived at Syracuse with a ton of hype given the offers from places like Florida State, LSU, Nebraska and a host of other big schools, and it’s still worth buying into that promise since he’s only in year two on campus. Special teams is the most likely spot for him — but redshirting may not be out of the question as well, if there’s not a clear place to contribute for more than a handful of games this year (remember the new redshirt rule).

Tyrell Richards, (Redshirt) Freshman

If you ask Babers, Tyrell Richards is a future NFL player, which should have Syracuse fans salivating about his impact in orange. When we were looking at a 4-3 scheme, Richards was potentially pushing for one of the outside linebacker spots. This year probably sets back defensive playing time for a year.

Kadeem Trotter, (Redshirt) Freshman

Trotter possesses the speed and body type to make an impact at linebacker, though he also hasn’t really played football in two years since he redshirted last year and tore his MCL as a senior. Before that injury, he was a major threat to get into the backfield. We’ll see that sort of skill put to use on special teams this year.

Tre Allison, Freshman

The Tyler, Tex. product was a late flip from SMU, and will (eventually) bring the sort of size and speed the Orange need at outside linebacker. ESPN saw him as top-35 prospect at the position, and his play style is definitely in line with the demands of the Tampa-2, looking more at coverage and open-field tackling ability than pass-rushing. Still, he’s a potential redshirt.

Juan Wallace, Freshman

Wallace is an inside linebacker who spent a bit more time as a blitzing option in high school than a defender out in coverage. But the same could be said for Franklin and Guthrie, so it’s not to doubt Wallace transitioning into the role. It won’t be this year, though depending on his progress this year, perhaps he enters into a real position battle next season.

Zack Lesko, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Lesko began his college career at Syracuse, then transferred over to Chattanooga along with former SU defensive assistant Tom Kaufman. After Kaufman left this past offseason to head to Kent State with Sean Lewis, Lesko rejoined the Orange — but he’ll have to sit out this year due to transfer rules.

Terrell Bennett, Freshman

Bennett was officially added to the roster as a walk-on last week, and he comes with a ringing endorsement from high school coaches and teachers. While he has the size (6-foot-2, 215 pounds), he might need a little bit more on the speed front (4.9-second 40-yard dash). He’s one of several preferred walk-ons trying to earn scholarships in the future.

Jake Wright, Freshman

Local walk-on Wright was another late addition to the roster, joining SU from Jamesville-DeWitt. Without projecting his ability to grab a scholarship, his high school numbers were at least the type of thing SU wants — including one 30-tackle game this past fall.

As you’ve noticed by now, there are quite a few new pieces here, and that likely means a step or two back from last year’s senior-laden group of Franklin, Parris Bennett and Jonathan Thomas. Still, that step or two back doesn’t necessarily have to be a disaster, which is why the 4-2-5 has been implemented.

For as much as there’s not much starting experience to be had, Guthrie and Whitner are veterans and have seen the field. The scheme switch isn’t necessarily a perfect fit, but it’s more of one than a base 4-3 could potentially be with this young group.

This is a huge season for Brian Ward and the defensive staff, so we’ll see how much ramp they get to develop something while changing the look of the system. Hopefully it’s a significant amount, though a rough start could call that into question.