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Syracuse 2019 spring football preview: Offensive line

How change is managed here could dictate a lot around Syracuse’s success.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

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 ramped up, we’re previewing each position group on the roster.

Last week, we took a pretty bullish look on the returning wide receivers and tight ends and how the team spreads the ball around to a lot of different pass-catching options. Next:

How does Syracuse’s offensive line deal with replacing three starters?

Who’s gone?

The headlines start with tackles Cody Conway and Koda Martin. Conway was a several-year starter and stalwart on the left side of the line for Syracuse, while Martin performed well in his one year on campus after transferring from Texas A&M. Starting guard Aaron Roberts has also graduated after starting 25 games in his Orange career.

Additionally, reserve guard Colin Byrne will not be returning either, nor is (walk-on) Keaton Darney, who graduated.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s on campus?

Still a ton of players, despite those losses above. Starters Evan Adams and Airon Servais return, though Servais is switching out to right tackle. Sam Heckel’s an experienced starter, though was a reserve last year and he’ll step into the center role. The spring depth chart also slotted in new starters at left guard (Dakota Davis) and left tackle (Carlos Vettorello).

Along with those players, returning players also include scholarship players Dakota Davis, Andrejas Duerig, Wilem Froumy, Qadir White and Mike Clark, plus walk-ons Austin Chandler and Ryan Kisselstein. Early enrollee Anthony Red is also on campus already and is already on the two-deep depth chart.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Matthew Bergeron also joins the fray. He’s a Quebec product who will likely slot in at guard down the road.

Why so many shifts?

Heckel’s largely played guard and now slots in at center, while Servais — starting center for the last two years — moves over to tackle. But Heckel’s an experienced center from before he got to Syracuse, while Servais was a tackle before arriving at SU. So while it may seem like a whole lot of shuffling, it’s actually more of a level-set to playing the five best linemen at each of their respective best positions.

Replacing three starters is no easy task, but this group still has a combined 70 starts over the course of their college careers. Yes, that’s limited to just three players, yet it’s a nice way to help bring along the less experienced members of the group.

Why so green on the left side of the line?

The optimistic view: Dino Babers and O-line coach Mike Cavanaugh are extremely high on younger players Carlos Vettorello and Dakota Davis, and are confident they’ll be able to anchor the left side of the line and keep Tommy DeVito off his back. Despite the lack of starts, Davis appeared in 12 games in 2018 and Vettorello played in two (still got the redshirt, however, thanks to the new rules around that).

The other side of that coin is that we’d rather have one really strong side of the line (the right) than two so-so sides. We’ve had young lines before — like in 2017. And while the early returns may have concerned, the group rounded into form by the end of the year. One potential issue with that this year is the third game of the season against Clemson.

Is Heckel an upgrade over Servais in the middle?

TBD, really. Servais struggled a bit at times over the last two years (ProFootballFocus grades were up and down), and has always been pretty big for a center (he stands at 6-foot-6). Heckel’s more extensive experience on the interior part of the line and maybe more appropriate size for the center role (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) could lead to a reasonable swap at the very least. And if that’s the case, seems like a no-brainer to put Servais elsewhere in a role that may provide him with more opportunities to succeed.

Which young guys are we seeing the most of this year?

Well, Vettorello and Dakota Davis are the no-brainers based on the depth chart starting them so far. Hopefully that’s it if everyone stays healthy. But we could see guys like Patrick Davis, Red and White in spot minutes or special teams.

Quarterback change means a new task at hand

Blocking in front of Eric Dungey had its pluses and minuses for Syracuse offensive linemen. On the one hand, he could make something out of nothing and avoid pressure. On the other, he had a tendency to hold onto the ball a bit at times and never really knowing whether you were run-blocking or pass-blocking can create frustrations.

In front of DeVito, there’s a different goal in mind this year. DeVito’s more a traditional pocket-passer, which should reduce the run/pass blocking challenge, while also increasing the importance of keeping him upright (since he’s less capable of doing so on his own). DeVito also has a quicker release, though, so that could mean less raw time blocking for him, regardless of the result of the play.

Another big change will be a bigger switch to a traditional run game than we’ve seen the last four years. Syracuse ran for over 200 yards per game in 2018 — top 40 in the country — but 58 of those were Dungey. Add in the fear of him running helping open up some holes, and we could see a step back there, even if nothing really changes in terms of the line or running back position’s actual success.