While talking about Ifeatu Melifonwu’s contributions to the Syracuse Orange defense for next year (after the article from earlier this week), the TNIAAM staff got to talking about the rest of the players on that side of the ball — namely the linebackers. What resulted was a Slack-ing Off article:
Andy: I mean, if Clemson didn’t have a literal NFL quality running back on the roster, I could see how we could cause their offense fits. But they’re gonna have their way with us with the play-action fake.
John: Linebackers aren’t gonna be ready -- which is somehow hard for a lot of us to believe, based on the fan base conversations I’ve been noticing.
Andy: Yeah appears to be more of a minor worry for everyone. When in reality, i think the best-case scenario is that the freshmen (particularly Mikel Jones) get worked in early and by the end of the year are the starters or at least getting a lot of snaps.
That’s why the Florida State game is such an obvious loss to me; if they have any semblance of a line, they’re gonna run Akers every play and it’ll work.
Steve: I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones, Lee Kpogba, Tyrell Richards and Juan Wallace were the rotation by the end of year.
John: No offense to the current starters, but I could see it happening by week six or seven, potentially, based on the early returns against Maryland and Clemson.
Steve: If they can all come on strong, it would allow us to not rely on the nickel as much, which I think we’re going to be stuck with out the gate. I don’t see Lakiem Williams and Andrew Armstrong being as effective in pass coverage right now.
John: I’ll take a two-LB set and get Trill/Richards as some flex position, though (so not necessarily Nickel)
Steve: Wouldn’t be a bad look. Sort of the old free range position a “spy” would have taken up, but with differing targets?
Andy: Kpogba and Jones as a combo in the middle would be fantastic, both are athletic and should be able to blitz and cover. Steve, don’t get how Cordy never became a LB/S hybrid like what they have in the NFL. Feel like that’s what he’s built for now
Steve: Yeah, that would seem to fit. And maybe that’s where he ends up as the “nickel.”
Andy: I assumed that all last year, but he never really got a look there
Steve: 4-3-4 with a pass heavy Will instead of a true nickel
Andy: I wonder if it’s just complicated or something Brian Ward isn’t into. Don’t hate that.
Steve: (Cordy’s) someone who could work on that backside and read the run quick enough to not leave it completely exposed.
Kevin: Still think Richards plays a lot of defensive end on passing downs with Kendall Coleman sliding inside
John: That’s fair. And definitely more necessary now with some questions on McKinley Williams’s health.
Steve: That Richards point is still intriguing, Kevin.
Kevin: If you want to get that pass rush up the middle a combo of Coleman and Josh Black could certainly be a force.
Andy: I wonder if the linebackers can’t generate pressure, we see more creative uses along the line. Which is why this position is so important
John: Linebackers didn’t really know what to do for first half of last year, so hoping whatever was the issue there that eventually got addressed is just implemented at the start this time. I know easier said than done though with so much inexperience.
Seems Ryan Guthrie struck right balance between run stopping and blitz. Kielan Whitner was a capable pass defender given his safety experience, and also made plenty of open-field stops.
Andy: Exactly, it wasn’t from week 1 (Western Michigan flashbacks), and it’s clear that if Jones is competing for first team snaps this summer already, they’re not at that level they were at end of last season.
John jumping back in here. Talked about the linebackers plenty in the position preview a couple weeks ago, but it’s worth this greater discussion (and whatever happens next in the comments, too). While linebackers rounded into something really solid last year, the two players most responsible for that rapid improvement are no longer on the roster.
This isn’t to doubt Armstrong or Lakiem Williams, or any of the other linebackers currently suiting up for Syracuse. But the position’s thin after an offseason of attrition, and we’ve yet to see proof that the second half of last season is the rule, rather than the exception.
Syracuse can survive with the linebackers taking a step or two back from last year given the strengths on the defensive line and in the secondary. But run-stopping is one area where things could come unraveled quickly if they’re not operating at least at a middling level for a P5 program. This isn’t to be a downer about the players or the team. More just keeping in mind that despite all of the hype and expectations for success, there are still questions and we’d personally prefer not to be blindsided by them once the season begins.