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Syracuse football 2019 season report card: Linebackers

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Things were... interesting this year.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Boston College at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a highly disappointing 5-7 season, there are probably a lot of you that would rather not look back at 2019 for the Syracuse Orange football team. But before we move forward into what we hope is a much better 2020, it’s worth taking stock of what’s occurred.

Since last week, we’ve been going position by position recapping SU’s year to see what worked, what didn’t, and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or in many cases, a lack thereof). On Monday, we discussed the defensive line and how it performed relative to high preseason expectations. This time around, it’s:

Linebackers

As we mentioned about a week before the season started, if there was one position group we were at least a little concerned about. it was Syracuse’s linebackers. After taking nearly half of a season to gel last year, they finished the year strong and were key to a great finish for the Orange defense. This time around, we’d have to hope for some of the same with yet another group coming in with minimal starting experience.

Unfortunately, it never really came together in 2019. There were exceptions, of course. But by and large, linebacker play only showed itself capable at individual aspects of the game, but never the entirety of the role SU’s scheme called for. That would present problems for any defense. For a defense that was missing its best run-stopper (McKinley Williams) for much of the year, though, it showed itself to be an outright disaster over and over.

Syracuse was not amazing at stopping the run last season, but did enough to finish in the top half of the country in terms of yards allowed per game. In 2019, they were among the 20 worst groups according to the same metric. McKinley Williams’s absence has an effect there, clearly. But the linebackers’ inability to clog lanes consistently are a large part of this defense getting shredded on the ground by opponents like Maryland and Clemson, and more glaringly, Boston College and Louisville.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Where they couldn’t stop the run, they did manage to play a reasonable semblance of pass defense, though. If they weren’t getting into passing lanes, starters Lakiem Williams and Andrew Armstrong were managing to make stops shortly after catches. Issues arose when either was forced to cover downfield, and speed became a bigger factor. But closer to the line of scrimmage, there were strong plays made throughout the year.

Lakiem Williams continued a stretch of four straight seasons now where at least one Syracuse linebacker has topped 100 tackles (he had 110), and Armstrong made a decent number of stops himself at 78. Those are great figures for two linebackers thrust into roles they hadn’t really inhabited before. But the number of stops required also tells the story of just how much they were required to tackle pass-catchers after they’d already made receptions — or worse, rushers after they’d quickly slipped past the line of scrimmage.

Of the two, Armstrong was better in coverage, and broke up three passes (including a pick). Meanwhile, Lakiem Williams was better on the blitz. He was tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks, and also led the team with 12.5 TFLs. Where he excelled was running straight ahead and quickly applying pressure. That led to a lot of disruption, but also left the defense vulnerable if the rush couldn’t stop the ball-carrier in question.

Beyond those two, the season also gave rise to the next group of linebackers to hopefully step up for the Orange after two transition seasons. Though they were all green behind the ears, there were potential pluses from guys like Mikel Jones and Tyrell Richards — as well as Juan Wallace, Lee Kpogba and Geoff Cantin-Arku. Though all participated in plenty of games this year, we only saw glimpses from most. Jones was a staple when the team came out in a 4-3 alignment, and wound up with 38 stops (two TFLs) on the year.

The big mystery was potentially Richards — a ‘tweener who wasn’t necessarily a fit for this linebacker group but likely has to be a core aspect of next year’s. Assuming we’re departing from the Tampa-2 next year, that probably means a greater emphasis on a base 4-3 or potentially 3-4 scheme depending on the coach. The 3-4 is an intriguing possibility because of the personnel we lose up front, what we bring back. It also requires something different of the linebackers. So TBD.

But keeping it focused on 2019 for now, this year’s linebacker play seemed to highlight the issues inherent with the Tampa-2 and how tough it is to implement without elite talent in the middle. That’s not necessarily the fault of the players, but ultimately, there’s a demand to rise to the occasion if you’re in the door.

This year’s linebackers did what they could — at times, did it well. Yet the holes (and questionable angles of pursuit) persisted and weren’t necessarily improved upon even after Ward’s departure. Despite counting metrics that gloss over some of the issues, it still left a lot to be desired.

Grade: C-