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Syracuse 2019 spring football preview: Defensive line

North Carolina State v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange football program added 21 players in the class of 2019, and with that, we get to officially turn the page to next season. Spring practice started on Sunday, March 3 and the spring game will be on April 13. As spring ball gets going, we’re previewing each position group on the roster.

Last week, we looked at an offensive line in flux. Next:

Can Syracuse replicate last year’s success with the blitz?

Who’s gone?

Just Chris Slayton departs from the 2018 group. As a redshirt senior last year, the tackle had 24 tackles, eight tackles for loss (3.5 sacks), six QB hurries and a forced fumble. He was at the NFL Scouting Combine last month and could potentially find himself playing in the league come next year.

Who’s on campus?

Everybody else, really.

Syracuse has a ton of experience on the defensive line with Kendall Coleman, Alton Robinson and McKinley Williams alone bringing back a combined 32 tackles for loss. On top of those three returning starters, there’s key reserves like Kenneth Ruff and Josh Black, plus Kingsley Jonathan, Curtis Harper, Shaq Grosvenor and Brandon Berry. Jake Pickard and Zach Morton are both set to return from injury. Redshirt frosh Caleb Okechukwu is back after participating in one game last year (Louisville). True freshmen Drew Tuazama and Cooper Dawson both arrived in January.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Even more talent is coming in the door over the summer. Jason Muñoz, Steven Linton and Ishmael Goulbourne arrive as defensive ends, while Joe Rondi will plug in at defensive tackle. As you can see by who’s still on campus, there’s unlikely to be a lot of opportunities this season. But the glut of additions is largely to help deal with losses coming next offseason.

Camping World Bowl - West Virginia v Syracuse Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

How can Syracuse keep up with last year’s record-setting sack pace?

The Orange recorded a program-record 43 sacks last season — good for seventh in the country. A relentless blitz and solid pressure up the middle helped SU attack opposing teams pretty regularly, a strategy that was assisted by the offense forcing teams to have to play catch-up by passing the ball.

While Slayton’s numbers won’t pop off the page, he was a large part of why the line looked so impressive this past year and his presence will be missed. Slayton typically commanded double teams, which freed up other linemen on the blitz. Both Coleman and Robinson had 10 sacks apiece, while Jonathan recorded five, Ruff had two and Berry had one.

Josh Black may not be able to earn the same attention from opposing offenses right away, but if he can come close to crashing the middle the way Slayton did, that should once again free up Syracuse’s edge rushers to blitz at will. Maybe it’s not the exact same pace as 2018, but it could be close.

About the run defense, though...

While Slayton and fellow starting tackle McKinley Williams deserve plenty of praise for 2018’s effort, it was not without its struggles, too. Despite frequently possessing double-digit leads, Syracuse still allowed over 162 yards per game on the ground. Four different teams racked up at least 200 yards on the ground against SU, including Western Michigan (242), Clemson (293), Pittsburgh (265) and Louisville (203).

Opposing teams were also far more successful running against Syracuse late in games versus early (5.44 yards per carry in the fourth quarter vs. 4.72 in the first) and ran better on early downs (4.7 on first and 4.85 on second) than later ones (2.3 per carry on third, 0.85 on fourth). So there’s some situational elements at play that wold need to be replicated to have similar levels of success to what we saw last year.

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

Is this the strength of the defense?

Last year’s defensive resurgence was led by the pass-rush and an aggressive secondary on paper. However, this unit only really seemed to put it together when the linebackers clicked to help out on both fronts. This time around, with little experience at linebacker, the Orange will probably be leaning on the line a lot more to generate that pressure and stop the run.

Still, they’re likely up for the task just the same. No position group on the offense or defense has more experience, and the tandem of Robinson and Coleman could be one of the more dynamic 1-2 punches at defensive end in the country in 2019. As long as they’re able to blitz like they did last year (or close), this unit should drive the defense’s production once again.

But what if they don’t?

This is a pretty positive preview, and rightfully so. But there’s a chance that Slayton’s absence is tougher on the group than we thought and the sack numbers don’t come at the same rate whatsoever. A small step back could be dealt with pretty easily. A bigger step back could potentially derail a lot of what this group did well last year. I have faith that the secondary can improve too. But it’s still high-risk, high-reward a lot of the time. That gets much more difficult if you can’t apply the same (effective) pressure. We’ll probably know by week two how much the 2019 group resembles 2018’s with a road game at Maryland.