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Syracuse football 2019 position preview: Linebackers

No SU position group has more question marks, but that’s not necessarily a sign of bad things to come.

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

The 2019 Syracuse Orange football season’s just weeks away, and we’re more than halfway 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 every player on the roster this fall. Last week, we looked at the one of the strengths of the team, the veteran and aggressive defensive line. This time around:


Going into 2018, Syracuse’s linebacker situation was enough of a question mark that Dino Babers announced a late offseason switch to a 4-2-5 alignment. The idea was to lean into depth in the secondary, while also trying to hide some inexperience at linebacker. Granted, the Orange wound up playing a lot of 4-3 anyway. But a change in scheme wasn’t the worst way to get faster defensive backs on the field to help make up for potential coverage deficiencies at the linebacker spots.

Early on, this was a group that had some trouble all over. Ryan Guthrie and Kielan Whitner were seniors, but also new to starting roles and neither was a natural fit for what it seemed like defensive coordinator Brian Ward initially wanted from the linebacker position. That showed in those early games against the run, in particular, when the team was gashed by nearly every opponent. But once Guthrie and Whitner made adjustments mid-year, they wound up being two of the defense’s biggest stars and both eclipsed 100 tackles on the season. The hope is that the lessons learned by this group in 2018 now make 2019’s reset a little easier.

(we’re not going to separate by inside and outside linebackers here, if only because there aren’t a ton of players at the position overall)

Connecticut v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Andrew Armstrong, Senior

Armstrong played quite a bit last year, finishing sixth on the team in tackles and securing a critical interception to help seal the game vs. NC State (see header image). But now he takes on a different sort of role for SU as the group’s most experienced player and projected starting weakside linebacker. Though he hasn’t necessarily shown himself to be a major piece of the puzzle against the run, that’ll likely need to shift this year and be crucial to the team’s overall success stopping opposing rushing attacks as well.

Lakiem Williams, Senior

We haven’t truly seen what Williams can do just set at Syracuse, after he was primarily a special teams player in 2018. Now, he’s thrust into the starting lineup at middle linebacker with some big shoes to fill after Guthrie’s departure. Williams resembles the sort of build we used to see more in SU middle linebackers — 6-feet and around 225-230 pounds. His spot will likely be one opponents test early as they won’t have much tape to go off.

Juan Wallace, Sophomore

If we wind up seeing less of Williams at all as the starter, Wallace will likely be the reason. The IMG Academy product is slightly larger at 6-foot-2 and is a pro at applying pressure up the middle (something Guthrie did incredibly well in the second half of last year). Whether he starts or not, Wallace is sure to get involved in 4-3 alignments and will be a core part of the linebacker rotation.

Mikel Jones, Freshman

Jones is one of two true freshman phenoms that’s been on campus since January and is looking to show why they received four stars from at least one recruiting service each. He’s already right behind Armstrong at weakside linebacker, and at 212 pounds, he’s built almost built more like a safety — something that helped Whitner last year. Like Wallace, Jones is going to press for playing time early and is already getting some looks with the first team in fall camp.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 08 Wagner at Syracuse

Tyrell Richards, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Richards is listed as a defensive lineman, but he’s probably more of a linebacker who’s going to float in as an extra pass-rusher in a 4-3 alignment. He had 16 tackles, three sacks and a pick last season, and the impressive athlete is anxious for more this season. Though he didn’t appear on the early two-deep, he’s going to be on the field one way or another. He’s one to watch in camp to see how Dino Babers utilizes him (and also how he doesn’t, since he won’t want to give too much away, either).

Kadeem Trotter, (Redshirt) Sophomore

We’ve yet to see Trotter on the field, but that could change this year — at the very least on special teams. When he was initially recruited, Syracuse coaches apparently said he was a future NFL player. He could have the speed to eventually get there, but we’ll see about the size at just 214 pounds right now. In any case, it’ll be interesting to just get our first look at him this fall and figure out where he factors on the depth chart past the two-deep.

Lee Kpogba, Freshman

The other half of the aforementioned four-star duo. Kpogba’s a force as a pass-rusher and a fantastic athlete that played both ways in high school. Since he’s been on campus all year, there’s a shot we see him on the field in some capacity for 2019, though any games where Syracuse primarily plays a 4-3 could give the young linebacker an opportunity to surprise.

Geoff Cantin-Arku, Freshman

Though Cantin-Arku is behind his fellow freshmen given that he only recently arrived, he’s also 6-foot-4 and comes in with a ton of potential. There obviously aren’t a lot of linebackers currently on the Orange roster, so any player at the position could potentially get playing time in 2019. For now, special teams seems like a reasonable expectation, however.

Ben Honis, (Redshirt) Senior

Honis was just added within the last couple weeks as a walk-on, but should be a familiar name to many in CNY. Not only did he attend Jamesville-Dewitt High School, but he was an All-American wrestler at Cornell. That sort of experience tackling could come in handy on special teams at the very least. He’s among the offseason’s more intriguing adds for SU.

So... that’s it at linebacker for Syracuse this year. After four players left the program in the offseason — Tre Allison, Nadarius Fagan, Tim Walton and Shy Cullen — things look a little slimmer than perhaps intended. Still, there’s a lot of talent here and younger players will be pushing veterans right off the bat as coaches try to see who’s going to fill the starting roles that proved so critical to last year’s second-half defensive turnaround.

For years before this one, Syracuse has either had experience, veteran players or both at linebacker. Even last year, when the team came in with big questions, Guthrie and Whitner were still guys who saw the field plenty leading up to earning starting roles. This year, it’s entirely new, which should test the defensive staff a ton as they cook up ways to keep the group as effective (or close) as what we saw last season. While I’d argue offensive line is the most critically important to the Orange this season, linebacker play actually isn’t too far behind. We’ll see soon enough which of these players are ready for to take on what will be a MUCH larger role this fall.