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.
On Tuesday, we dove into the defensive line. Today:
Since at least 2006, the linebacker group has stood out above all others for the Syracuse defense. A rotating door of athletic playmakers and heady tacklers have made up for inadequacies in front or behind them (or both), and regardless of experience, the linebackers have been what’s led the way. Losing three stellar seniors from last year’s group, it was a reasonable expectation that the linebackers would take a step back in 2018.
Except they didn’t — or at least, didn’t by the end of the year.
For the first six games, you could see the issues, whether the team was in a 4-3 or a 4-2-5 base scheme. Linebackers were caught flat-footed and out of position. The team was shredded on the ground against WMU, UConn, Clemson and Pitt. Syracuse was still finding success by way of forcing turnovers and blitzing, but the middle of the field was a wide open canvas for teams. They were happy to take advantage of the opportunity.
Something changed during the bye week, however, and suddenly everything clicked. After topping 10 tackles just once in the first half of the year, Ryan Guthrie did so in four of the final seven games — and had just one game with fewer than eight (the bowl win over WVU). The former JUCO transfer ended up leading the ACC in tackles, collecting 107 on the year. Fellow senior Kielan Whitner put in a similarly strong effort in the middle of the season, and wound up with 100 of his own.
The basic stops were great. But where those two really made their impact was in assisting the blitz and creating disruptions. Guthrie’s 16.5 tackles for loss were second on the team and fifth in the conference, plus he had a team-leading 23.5 run-stuffs. Whitner, meanwhile, picked up 5.5 tackles for loss. As a former safety, he ended up more involved in defending against the pass with two picks plus an additional pass break-up.
Though the seniors may have earned the headlines, the rest of the group also showed some progress, both toward the style of play we probably expect of the Tampa-2 (coverage-focused) and the pressure-heavy scheme they played for a big part of this year.
Andrew Armstrong had 45 stops and showed signs of bigger play-making abilities in the early part of the season (plus a big interception against NC State). Shy Cullen spent the second half of the season earning more and more time on the field, to finish with 31 tackles. As most know by now, he’s dealing with some eligibility issues at the moment, but could very well be back this summer and competing for a starting role.
Those last couple numbers don’t floor you, and they also don’t necessarily have to. Because as much as it’s great to have 100-tackle linebackers on the roster these past few years, that’s not at all the “goal” of the position in this scheme. The subtle adjustments from the linebackers that led to more run game disruptions (tackles for loss or not) were the more important development. And probably the more sustainable fix too in order to make this defense not revert back to the previous disaster it was for the first two-plus years of this regime.
It’s easy to focus in on the linebackers as a potential trouble spot for 2019. But considering how well they played this season after losing players like Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett, would you really doubt it if the next replacements performed just as well? There’s minimal experience left, but an improving talent level (and one that is more coverage-focused like the Tampa-2 is designed for) could still end up yielding some impressive results yet again come Fall.