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Syracuse football 2018 report card: Defensive line

Well, that improved in a hurry.

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

The Syracuse Orange football program finished 10-3 in 2018 — the first time SU’s done as much since 2001. So while these postseason reviews typically end up skewing toward what went wrong, hopefully this is the first of many seasons in a row where we get to happily recap what went very right.

Despite winning 10 games, though, it’s not as if things were perfect. These “report cards” serve as an assessment of both good and bad. Looking back at the past season, we’re going position by position, to see what worked, what didn’t and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or in rare cases, lack thereof). Hopefully you enjoy. And why wouldn’t you? We have a top-25 team to root for again.

Last time around, we talked about the offensive line. Next up:

NCAA Football: Florida State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive line

Syracuse’s defensive struggles over the past few years can be traced to a lot of things, but it all pretty much starts with the pass rush (or a lack thereof). Since 2014, the Orange saw diminishing returns there: From that year, sack totals went down from 27 to 23 (2015) to 16 (2016 and 2017). And if there was any shot of improving the defense this year, it was essential to get more production in the pass rush to take a load off what was a questionable secondary.

The Orange tallied a program-record 43 sacks in 2018.

That stat alone tells you this season was a successful one for SU’s defensive line, but it’s still worth breaking down more about how they led a resurgence that was able to elevate the rest of the defense and turn Syracuse’s defense into a unit one that bent quite a bit, yet usually found a way to avoid breaking.

The rush obviously started with Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman, the Orange’s two starting defensive ends that each tallied 10 sacks this year, and four other linemen picked up at least two sacks on the year (led by Kingsley Jonathan’s five). Syracuse blitzed quite a bit this year. And despite sticking to most of the elements of the Tampa-2, it looked a lot more like some of Scott Shafer’s best defenses from when he was working under Doug Marrone from 2009-12.

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

Because Syracuse was fantastic on blitz downs, putting up some of the best numbers in the country there, according to Bill Connelly’s metrics. The Orange were third in blitz down success rate at 17.9 percent, 37th in big play rate on blitz downs and 20th in blitz down sack rate (13.6 percent). Some of that comes from the back seven, admittedly. But 34.5 of the 43 sacks DID come from the line.

It’s notable that the pass rush success did also lead to some run-stopping struggles here and there. That’s no knock on McKinley Williams and Chris Slayton’s run-stuffing abilities individually. However, the persistent blitz did lead to over-shooting the run, which is something good rushing teams were wise to.

Syracuse allowed 4.33 yards per carry, which was in the bottom half of the country. And the team’s stuff rate (19.6 percent) was 56th. And as you know, good rushing teams had a field day against this group. Four different opponents racked up over 200 yards on the ground against them — among them, the crushing performances by Clemson and Pitt that directly led to Orange losses.

In other games, though, SU was assisted by the fact that the offense established early leads, which led to teams passing significantly more. That played into the team’s blitzing tendencies, which allowed for more stops, etc...

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

This all required a lot of things to go right at the same time — veteran pass rushers, a senior run-stuffer like Slayton in the middle, leads that led by more blitzing downs — but at least some of it seems repeatable. Syracuse is slated to return three of four starters on the line in 2019, and contributions from reserves already paint a positive picture for what’s next. The linebackers won’t be as experienced next year, and that could make things a bit tougher. Still, Dino Babers’s staff has been adding talented players at the position for several cycles in a row now.

Breaking a program sack record was impressive given the athletes that have played on this defensive line before, and hopefully SU gets another shot at besting the mark come next season too. The focus was rightfully on the offense this year with regard to the team’s turnaround. But there’s no way that group is nearly as effective without the disruptive capabilities up front on defense that helped get the ball back into their hands quickly.

Grade: A-