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Syracuse football 2019 season report card: Defensive line

We had high hopes for the line. Did this group meet the challenge?

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NCAA Football: Syracuse at Duke James Guillory-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.

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). Last time, we talked offensive line and the various failures that group experienced. Today, it’s...

Defensive line

One of the biggest changes for Syracuse during a breakout 2018 season was the defensive line. The group tallied a program-record number of sacks, applied constant pressure and managed to stop the run quite a bit too (especially in the second half of the year). So returning three of those four starters for 2019, the expectation was that we’d be able to see similar production to last year.

And then... we didn’t.

A wrench was thrown in right off the bat, with McKinley Williams missing the first nine games of the season, leaving both tackle spots to new-ish starters. Josh Black actually started four games at nose tackle in 2018, but Kenneth Ruff was a first-time starter. Without the experienced Williams in the middle to attract a little more attention, opposing teams put their energy toward shutting down edge rushers Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman. And they pulled it off to a reasonable amount of success.

After combining for 20 sacks last season, they had just 8.5 total this year. Tackles for loss also dipped from 29 to 20. Though they were still able to apply pressure from the outside, the pass rush was picked up more frequently without the same push in the middle from the tackle spots. Pro Football Focus regularly graded Robinson as one of the ACC’s top edge rushers all season despite the dip too. He finished the year earning third-team honors on the edge there.

From the tackle spot, things were serviceable at times early in the year, but — as the entire defense did — took a big step up once Williams returned against Duke. While it wasn’t great to lose “Bear” for much of the year, the one potential positive from the development is that he missed enough games to earn a redshirt for 2019, so he’ll be back for a final season in 2020 to help the tackle position (which doesn’t have a ton of options right now) develop a bit more prior to his departure.

Still, since Williams wasn’t playing for much of the year, and the line was shredded on the ground against Louisville with him on the field, there were some major concerns worth flagging.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Orange allowed 4.91 yards per carry for the full season — one of the 25 worst figures in the country. Further frustrating matters was how hot and cold the team seemed to play against the run. Syracuse allowed three yards or fewer per carry during three different games (Liberty, Holy Cross, Duke). But also let up seven or more on four other occasions (Maryland, Clemson, Boston College and Louisville). Obviously the linebackers play a part in that too. We’ll get to them tomorrow.

While the Orange lacked the sack production we saw last year, it was still pretty solid; creating something to keep an eye out for as the team switches schemes and key players for next season. A year after collecting 43 sacks (3.31 per game), they had 30 (2.5 per game) in 2019. That’s not terrible — it was top-40 in the country and still well beyond what we saw during the first two years of the Babers era. But the extra 0.8 sack per game does make a big difference, as we saw this year with regard to overall defensive success.

As a group, this defense is going to be tough to give a true grade because of Brian Ward’s departure after nine games, Williams’s absence from the first nine and the improvements that came in two of the final three (Louisville aside, because let’s face it, that was a disaster). Still, focusing in on results as we can see them, we’ll give it a shot.

Syracuse’s defensive line carried a lot of expectations into this season, and relative to those, they didn’t necessarily follow through (something that you could say about the entire season’s results, really). But relative to the other two defensive units and national defensive line performance? The group was still the best aspect of this defense, and still managed to be a top-40 pass-rushing group despite playing from behind for large swaths of the season (thus reducing passing situations). That counts for something, right?

Grade: B-