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Syracuse 2019 spring football preview: Linebackers

For the second straight year, this unit replaces a LOT.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange football program added 21 players in the class of 2019, and with that, we officially turned the page to next season. Spring practice started back on March 3 and the spring game is coming up soon on April 13. As spring ball is in full swing, we’re in the middle of previewing each position group on the roster.

Last week, we looked at the defensive line’s abilities to keep up last year’s record-setting sack pace. Next:

Syracuse hits reset at linebacker for the second straight season

Who’s gone?

The team’s top two tacklers from 2018, to begin with. Ryan Guthrie (107 stops) and Kielan Whitner (100) both depart, as does Nadarius Fagan, who’s entered his name into the transfer portal after two seasons with the Orange. Shyheim Cullen is currently not on the roster, but could be back for fall once he gets his grades in order.

Guthrie and Whitner were both first-time starters last year as SU looked to replace three seniors at linebacker. Things were shaky in the season’s early games, but Guthrie and Whitner wound up being two key pieces to the Orange’s defensive resurgence.

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

Who’s on campus?

Quite a bit of youth, mixed with a little bit of experience.

Andrew Armstrong was an on-and-off starter last year and was Syracuse’s sixth-leading tackler with 45 stops. He also had an interception to help seal the win against NC State (as pictured above). Former JUCO transfer Lakiem Williams is back as well, and hopes to contribute more after a first season at SU that was slowed by injury.

Returning scholarship players Tim Walton, Tre Allison, Juan Wallace, Kadeem Trotter and Tyrell Richards are all back. Last year, Richards saw extended time playing as an edge rusher flexing between the front four and linebacker positions. Four-star true freshmen signees Mikel Jones and Lee Kpogba are also on campus already, as are walk-ons Jake Wright, Zack Lesko and Terrell Bennett.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Quebec linebacker Geoff Cantin will also join the roster in a few months.

What alignments will we see this year?

After spending most of last offseason assuming we’d be trotting out a 4-3 base scheme once again, it was announced that the Orange would be transitioning to a 4-2-5. However, that ended up being more of a situational alignment and SU still used the 4-3 plenty, and especially against run-centric teams. The 4-2-5 switch was largely because of the team’s inexperience at linebacker after replacing three seniors.

This time around, we’ll probably be seeing a lot more of the same, for similar reasons. Guthrie and Whitner depart, and Armstrong is the most experienced remaining linebacker. If Cullen’s back, that helps though last year’s 31 tackles were still his best effort to-date. If he doesn’t return, Richards and Williams become your next-most experienced players. That could mean even more 4-2-5 — but the secondary personnel could also facilitate it given the logjam at corner. Sophomore Trill Williams could end up playing nickel back there given his success in the same sort of role last year.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Western Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Can the linebackers get off to a hot start?

Last year, Syracuse’s defense got to ease into the year a bit, with three easier non-conference opponents and a bad Florida State offensive line before they went down to Death Valley to meet Clemson. This time, they’ll receive no such luxury with a road game at Maryland in week two and hosting the Tigers in week three. If these linebackers are going to put it together this year, it’s going to need to happen quickly.

While the numbers obviously jump off the page for two regular starters from last year, their success wasn’t always assured last year. Rough outings were a regular occurrence early, and played a large role in moribund efforts against the run — especially vs. Clemson (293 yards) and Pitt (265). Adjustments during the bye week starting taking hold by the UNC game, and the team found the balance between run-stopping and filling gaps with the linebackers, and also using them to create pressure (the latter being Guthrie’s strong suit as as a JUCO standout).

In 2019, that moment of clarity probably needs to come sometime in the Maryland game, so they can apply the key learnings to a potential upset bid the following week. The 4-2-5’s not going to help as much against the run, so even with the personnel for it, expect SU to emphasize the 4-3 in order to stop early opponents, before shifting gears later on. Given the limited experience of the linebackers, too, setting them up for success will be critical for future returns and the confidence to make plays as the year continues.

Who’s getting the snaps at linebacker?

According to the first spring depth chart, Armstrong and Williams are the most likely, with Richards and Wallace occupying the next positions on the two-deep. The former two players are the most familiar with playing in this system in an actual game, though don’t sleep on either of the younger understudies. Richards was a versatile player last year, winding up with 16 tackles, three sacks and a pick, and had a season-high six stops in the bowl game vs. West Virginia. If we end up in a 4-3, expect him to the be third starter. Even if not, he could very well challenge for one of the starting gigs all offseason.

How much will we see of the true freshmen?

Jones and Kpogba were two of the top-rated players for Syracuse in the 2019 class, and their respective early arrivals set them up extremely well to contribute in year one. Both have the sort of size and speed needed for the Tampa-2 and show an ability to contribute against the run and pass. If they’re not on the two-deep, special teams is a potential use, just to get them some game minutes and be prepared to compete for starting roles next season when seniors Armstrong and Williams are off the books and we hit reset for a third straight year at linebacker.

Okay, so how much of a step back are we taking?

I think more of one than we did from 2017 to 2018, though I’m still high on this group’s potential to round into form. Last year, we handed the reins to two experienced seniors, one of whom was a former safety tailor-made for the Tampa-2. This time, both Armstrong and Williams are Babers recruits, but we have still only seen fleeting glimpses of what they can do.

That doesn’t mean they’ll collapse, but the “quick” adjustments from last year that still took ‘til mid-October could mean an even longer wait this time around. In all likelihood, the staff already sees this and is focusing on them filling run lanes and going to work against opposing ground attacks while also playing in coverage — instead of the three-part role that also serve as key parts of the blitz. So this year’s group may not be much “worse,” but they’ll probably be a bit more conservative. Though having a lot of younger players pushing the names at the top of the depth chart could be a boon all-around, at least.