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Syracuse football 2019 season report card: Offensive line

The line had their issues, but there may be a light at the end of the tunnel... for next year.

NCAA Football: Holy Cross at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Over this week and next, we’ll be 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). Earlier in the week, we talked through quarterbacks, as well as running backs, yesterday we touched on receivers and tight ends. Today, it’s...

Offensive line

Coming in off of the 10-3 success that was the 2018 Syracuse football season, it seemed there was a chance for the offensive line to be a bit of consistency for the team as it looked to replace a few key pieces of the offense. Graduating Cody Conway, Aaron Roberts, and Koda Martin would lead to a bit of a shakeup, but there were three returning players that had all started for season long stretches in Orange. Sam Heckel started at guard in the 2017 season and was tabbed as the starting center. Airon Servais, the starting center from the two years prior was moved out to tackle, and Evan Adams shifted from right to left guard.

Starting Syracuse Offensive Line

Year LT LG C RG RT Starters Replaced Record
Year LT LG C RG RT Starters Replaced Record
2019d Airon Servais Evan Adams Carlos Vettorello Dakota Davis Matthew Bergeron 3* 5-7
2019c Carlos Vettorello Evan Adams Airon Servais Dakota Davis Matthew Bergeron 3* 5-7
2019b Carlos Vettorello Evan Adams Airon Servais Dakota Davis Ryan Alexander 3* 5-7
2019a Airon Servais Evan Adams Sam Heckel Dakota Davis Carlos Vettorello 3* 5-7
2018 Cody Conway Aaron Roberts Airon Servais Evan Adams Koda Martin 2* 10-3
2017 Cody Conway Sam Heckel Airon Servais Evan Adams Jamar McGloster 3 4-8
2016 Cody Conway Aaron Roberts Jason Emerich Omari Palmer Jamar McGloster 4 4-8
2015 Ivan Foy Nick Robinson Rob Trudo Seamus Shanley Omari Palmer 3 4-8
2014 Sean Hickey Omari Palmer John Miller Rob Trudo Ivan Foy 2 3-9
2013 Sean Hickey Rob Trudo Macky McPherson Nick Robinson Ivan Foy 4 7-6
2012 Justin Pugh Zach Chibane Macky McPherson Ivan Foy Lou Alexander 2 8-5
2011 Justin Pugh Zach Chibane Macky McPherson Andrew Tiller Michael Hay -- 5-7
Offensive Line Progression 2011-2019 S. Haller

On top of the returners, Coach Dino Babers and staff brought in a few promising additions with a graduate transfer offensive tackle from South Alabama in Ryan Alexander and a guard from the JuCo ranks in Darius Tisdale, who, for trivia’s sake, was the cousin of former Syracuse running back Donte Strickland.

There were a few questions right off the bat, as Ryan Alexander, the grad transfer, was beat out for the starting right tackle spot by redshirt freshman Carlos Vettorello. Vettorello had show promise, but even in the spring, Dino had said he wasn’t quite ready, so at that point he had either made leaps and bounds, or Alexander wasn’t as advertised. As usual, reality was a little bit of both. Vettorello had improved from what was seen in the spring, and Alexander eventually, after losing his starting spot in week seven, to true freshman Matthew Bergeron, left the team.

On the season, the Orange ranked 128th out of the 130 FBS schools in sacks allowed. On the season, Tommy DeVito or Clayton Welch were brought down at least 50 times. This abyssmal stat really shows the depth to which things were out of sorts on the line. Four times on the year, the Orange gave up more than seven sacks to an opponent; Clemson (8), NC State (8), Pittsburgh (9) and Florida State (7). As you can imagine, things needed a shakeup after the Florida State game, leading into Boston College and down the stretch, with the Orange sitting at 3-5, attempting to work into a bowl game. As such, Bergeron was named the starter and Alexander left the team. This seemed to give a boost to the line, and the offense started clicking a little more, though the offense wasn’t the problem that week.

The final alteration, and the one that made the most difference in the offensive line itself was the switch of Carlos Vettorello and Airon Servais. Vettorello moving inside to center and Servais moving out to tackle. This change was a long time coming, with Vettorello taking snaps earlier in the season, and in camp, at center, but ultimately must not have been ready, as it took until the second bye week to make the move. Likely a function of Vettorello either having snap issues or problems calling the blocking schemes, it worked itself out over time. Once the switch was made, the line itself looked much better in both the run and pass games, with the run game moving like it hadn’t all year, and the team only giving up a total of six sacks the final three games.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Duke James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

While the first two thirds were an utter disaster from any way you try to slice it, and the line may have looked to be one of the worst in the Power Five conferences at the time, there was definite improvement over the year. As a center, Airon Servais had some definite issues in the middle to start the year, thrust back into the role in the middle that he had been moved out of. He never seemed to have a true chemistry with right guard Dakota Davis, but settled down and was able to look much better when he was shifted outside to tackle heading into the Duke game.

Evan Adams was one of the consistent spots throughout the year, and did what was needed after moving to the left side of the line. Another overall solid year for the three-plus year starter, if not anything overly remarkable. On the other side of center, Dakota Davis had some ups and down in his first year starting, but ultimately looked much better by the end of the campaign. Early in the year, the lack of chemistry or familiarity with Servais and, at the time, Ryan Alexander, led to some rough patches, but the final alignment, and his work with Vettorello and Bergeron looked much better in both the run and pass games. Assignments he was missing early in the year were rectified and he looked like a solid starting option for the Orange.

At the tackle spot, Vettorello looked the part of a redshirt freshman being forced into a left tackle role early in the year, though he had some ups and downs, he definitely looked better on the interior of the line, primarily as a run blocker. His pass blocking in either situation wasn’t a particular weakness, but in the interior he looked much more comfortable in any sort of zone blocking when he wasn’t on an island. His initial counterpart, on the other hand was Ryan Alexander, who had a very rough go, prior to him losing his spot to Bergeron, the true freshman. Bergeron made the most of his opportunity, looking at times like a freshman, but showing mental fortitude and an ability to physically match up with anyone he was matched with in the final four games.

Looking forward, this unit will return four starting members of the line and likely get back Sam Heckel, who was lost to injury in the first week of the year. As he was the starting left guard in the past, he should be able to naturally slot in for the departing Evan Adams, leaving a full compliment of offensive lineman with starting experience. With the improvements that were seen over the course of the year, it’s optimistic to consider this a strength until we see them against the top end of defensive fronts that the ACC has to offer, but I remain cautiously optimistic.

Grade: D