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Syracuse football 2019 position preview: Defensive line

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Yes, Syracuse has one of the country’s top pass-rushing duos.

Connecticut v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

The 2019 Syracuse Orange football season gets closer and closer, and we’re well into sorting through position previews for every group on this year’s SU roster.

Each week leading up to the season, we’re profiling one group and any player that could make an impact (or not) this fall. Last time around, we looked at the rebuilding but deep offensive line. This week:

Defensive line

Last year started rough for Syracuse’s defensive line, as early opponents seemed to have little issue gashing them up front for big gains on the ground. Western Michigan had 242 yards rushing, Clemson had 293 and Pitt picked up 265. These were good rushing teams, yes. But they also had no trouble running as SU’s front was easily pushed around by opposing lines.

Something changed mid-way through the season, though. Part of that was with the linebackers (we’ll get to them next week), but the D-line also started getting a greater push inside from Chris Slayton and the rest. Having more pressure inside diverted more attention away from the edge rushers, and Syracuse would wind up with its highest sack total in program history. Most of that production’s back this season too, and it’s one of the keys to the Orange being able to repeat last year’s success.

Ends

Alton Robinson, Senior

Robinson’s become not just the Orange’s top pass-rusher, but one of the ACC’s best and maybe one of the best in the country, too. His speed and athleticism around the edge will be put to use yet again as Brian Ward likely lets him loose as a constant disruption in the backfield. Assuming he can put something together like last year’s 10-sack (17 TFLs), he’ll be climbing draft boards in the spring.

Kendall Coleman, Senior

Part of the reason why Robinson has room to operate is because his partner in crime, Coleman, is about as good at getting after opposing QBs. He had 10 sacks of his own in 2018 (12 TFLs) and is a core part of SU’s pressure up front. Like Robinson, he’s already positioned himself to be selected in the 2020 NFL Draft. And though he didn’t make the preseason All-ACC list, there’s plenty of room for that to change in November.

Kingsley Jonathan, Junior

Jonathan’s learned from the best already and even as a reserve defensive end, he’ll find himself on the field plenty as a junior this year. After recording six sacks in 2018, there’s also the potential the defense finds additional ways to deploy him that apply additional pressure with both Coleman and Robinson also on the field.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 07 Pitt at Syracuse Photo by Jerome Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Brandon Berry, (Redshirt) Senior

Berry’s shown himself capable of starting in the past when called upon, but with luck, he won’t have to jump in a ton this year. The experienced (played in 24 games at SU) end is a valuable reserve who can provide starters a break and make stops as needed. He also helps preserve some redshirts elsewhere, potentially, which is also valuable.

Zach Morton, (Redshirt) Sophomore

We’ve yet to see Morton take the field at Syracuse, following a redshirt freshman year and a knee injury last season. But assuming he’s back at full speed in 2019, the quick and athletic athlete could wind up working himself into the rotation. At the very least, he seems like a possible special teams addition.

Caleb Okechukwu, (Redshirt) Freshman

Okechukwu could be a surprising player to snag some playing time this year. He already saw the field once last year (vs. Louisville) and as one of the bigger ends on the roster, it just seems that he has too much size to leave on the sideline. And with linebacker-type skills, perhaps special teams is a good starting point (he could contend for a starting role next year, though).

Jake Pickard, (Redshirt) Senior

Injuries have put a damper on Pickard’s career since he originally picked Syracuse over Wisconsin back in 2015. Since playing 10 games in 2016, his contributions have dipped each season since and dwindled to zero while he was recovering from offseason surgey in 2018. This year’s depth chart will make it hard to break through too, but he could find a special teams role, perhaps.

Jason Muñoz, Freshman

A Miami flip, Muñoz already has the size to play defensive end in this system — now he just needs the time to get acclimated. This is probably a redshirt year given the depth Syracuse has among experienced players. But if there are some blowouts (in either direction), expect Dino Babers to use the four-game redshirt rules to get guys like Muñoz some valuable early reps.

Drew Tuazama, Freshman

Tuazama’s big already at 6-foot-5, and there’s potential talk about him being able to move inside if needed — something that would probably be a year or two out. Like Muñoz, he’s a prime redshirt candidate who could also learn on the job for a few games. But based on what we saw from him this March/April (including three tackles and a sack in the spring game), there’s a chance he pushes for a bit more this fall.

Steve Linton, Freshman

At just 215 pounds, Linton’s going to take a redshirt this season as he pushes to add more weight to an impressive 6-foot-5 frame. But the goal is to eventually have him be an effective edge rusher down the line without losing his current speed. We’ll see if that can happen over the next couple seasons.

Cooper Dawson, Freshman

There were originally thoughts that Dawson could wind up a tackle, and maybe those ideas still exist. But at 237 pounds, he’s not yet there from a size perspective. So that probably means a redshirt season, but in the meantime he’s in contention for the titles of “best hair” and “best human being” on the roster, which is a solid consolation prize.

Ishmael Goulbourne, Freshman

The lone 2019 signee to not yet make it to campus, we’re in wait-and-see mode on Goulbourne for now. Even if he winds up getting to SU, he’s still only around 200 pounds, so that would make for a redshirt season for sure. There’s potential for him to move to linebacker as well — something that becomes more feasible with several departures at the position this offseason.

Zack Lesko, (Redshirt) Junior

Lesko has yet to suit up for Syracuse or Chattanooga during his college career split between the two schools. As a walk-on, his opportunities to break through the long list of ends in front of him here will be minimal, but special teams could provide an opening.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 07 Pitt at Syracuse Photo by Jerome Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tackles

McKinley Williams, Senior

“Bear” is a physical freak, and will start at defensive tackle this season after spending much of his career to-date at nose tackle. As a junior last year, he had 17 tackles, three TFLs and a rumble recovery, and this year will play a key role in effectively stuffing the run. Chris Slayton’s shoes are not easy ones to fill, but Williams has the experience and ability to potentially make it happen.

Josh Black, (Redshirt) Junior

The former end has bulked up to 270 over the years, and now slots in as the starting nose tackle on the preseason depth chart. He did so in four games already last year, so Syracuse isn’t necessarily losing a full starter without Slayton — while completely acknowledging the fact that you don’t just replace an NFL Draft pick. Black’s 14 tackles and one TFL and a fumble recovery last year extrapolate out to some nice production as a regular starter, though.

Kenneth Ruff, Senior

Ruff’s taken an even more circuitous path to DT, coming to Syracuse as a linebacker and gaining around 70 pounds since then to currently be slotted in behind Williams. Despite not starting last year, he still had 19 tackles, 4.5 TFLs and two sacks, with production weighted toward the back end of the season. Whether he starts or not this year, you’ll be seeing him on the field plenty.

Shaq Grosvenor, (Redshirt) Senior

Grosvenor has played sparingly at SU, battling some injuries and also a reasonably crowded depth chart (see the names above). This year, he’s on the two-deep at nose tackle and will find his way on the field barring further health issues. At 285 pounds with experience, it’s at least worth working him into a rotation to keep the tackles fresh all season.

Curtis Harper, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Harper’s only seen the field once so far in his career (vs. Wagner last year), but that’s likely to change pretty soon given the departures that will come at tackle this offseason. He weighs 300 pounds and is a potential run-stopper in the middle if turned loose. For now, however, he may be deployed on special teams while the depth chart clears.

Joe Rondi, Freshman

Rondi was an impressive two-way player in high school, and that should serve him well at SU... down the road. For now, he’ll be redshirting to help add more weight since he’s currently just 255 pounds and will need more on him to be a reliable option inside. Luckily the roster’s current construction allows for that development, however.

Kevon Darton, Freshman

Darton is a walk-on, but in the mold of Chris Elmore: He’s 5-foot-11 and 285 pounds already, and played both ways in high school. Perhaps there’s a long-term goal to get him in at fullback. But the depth chart probably needs a tackle more than anything right now. He’s unlikely to see the field this year, but could wind up playing his way into the rotation if his size comes with comparable talent.

***

Losing just one piece of the starting line sets up Syracuse well to repeat at least some of what made last year such a success. But it’s also worth considering that this year and there’s some extra pressure and attention on this group. Coleman and Robinson (at the very least) are looking to improve draft stock. Everyone knows this is an aggressive pass-rushing group now, and will be game-planned to slow it down from the start. There’s also the fact that replacing last year’s veteran linebackers means extra stress on the line — at least early — to make run stopping a priority.

None of those factors mean we see failure here. Just pointing out why plugging in most of last year’s pieces may not necessarily yield the same high level of results, even if the talent level is the same.

By making a switch in scheme and approach last year, defensive coordinator Brian Ward not only saved his job but also helped set up Syracuse’s best season in well over a decade. Now we see if he can do it again when it’s expected. The line will be a major part of whether that comes to fruition or not.