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Syracuse football 2020 season report card: Defensive line

SU replaced a lot. How’d that go?

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Forgive us for the week-long break in these recaps, but the early signing period is pretty resource intensive. We’re back at it this week, however, to close out our Syracuse Orange 2020 football season report cards.

After wrapping up the offensive side of the ball (see reports cards for the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers/tight ends and offensive line), we’ve moved on to the defensive side. That starts with:

Defensive Line

Losing three of four defensive linemen from 2019, there were concerns up front for Syracuse heading into the fall. Despite that, though, the group coming back — for a new three-man front — was actually pretty experienced. At times (especially as the year wore on), it showed. At others, the fit (from a skill set perspective) was not perfect when paired with a green linebacker corps.

As a team, the Orange managed slightly more tackles for loss per game in 2020 (6.36 vs. 6.25 in 2019), but more came from those linebackers. In the previous scheme, a lot of the pass-rush was built on the front four, with the linebackers contributing more to run-stopping. In this 3-3-5, the roles are a bit reversed. That’s where the skill-set mismatch is derived from, as we noticed at various points throughout 2020. Things weren’t perfect by year’s end, but you at least saw how things could round into form eventually.

That could be helpful information if everyone winds up returning. So far, we know we’ll see Josh Black and Kinglsey Johnathan for another season, though TBD on fellow seniors (McNeese State transfer) Cody Roscoe and McKinley Williams.

After an injury-shortened 2019, Williams was back as a force in the middle of the line for Syracuse this fall. He had eight tackles for loss to lead the team, and functioned reasonably well as a run-stuffer — though he graded out as SU’s best lineman in pass-rushing situations (71.4, per Pro Football Focus). His run defense grade was just slightly behind that at 68.0. He was also fourth on the team in pressures generated, so yeah, a bit more involved in the pass-rush than stopping the run.

Though he didn’t grade out as well in pass-rushing situations, Roscoe actually tied for the most pressures generated (20) on the team and had the most QB hurries with 14. His tackling grades weren’t great — an issue when you’re tasked with slowing down the ground game — but he displayed play-making abilities while tallying two sacks and a total of six tackles for loss.

Needless to say, losing either of those two would have a major impact on the Orange for next year. Yet, Black and Jonathan showed their own unique abilities even if the basic counting numbers didn’t jump off the page.

Jonathan, in his first real starting role, had 5.5 tackles for loss (three sacks), a forced fumble and three pass break-ups. He tied Roscoe for the lead in QB pressures with 20, and was fourth in hurries with 12. Jonathan actually grades out as Syracuse’s top tackler among all starters (82.9), was the line’s top run-stopper and the second-best pass-rusher on the line behind Williams. He has versatility and athleticism that continue to fuel high expectations about his play. And when you dig in further, you can see that he does quietly impact games a lot, even without the basic stats to back that up.

Black, meanwhile, is another one of the team’s top tacklers (81.8 grade) and a surprisingly good player in coverage (69.9) given his position — also worth noting the smaller sample size there, though. The fifth-year senior had four TFLs (two sacks) and an interception while disrupting plays and getting into passing lanes, while still playing an effective role defending against the run. Black’s tackling ability makes him maybe the most adaptable to the role required of this line, and you saw more of that focus from him than probably any of the main four linemen in 2020.

Where things got less straight-forward for Syracuse was the depth beyond those four. Even in this subjective “grading” exercise, it’s a tough balance to figure out how much you account for the starters versus the production of any significant reserves. Of the three main linemen beyond the aforementioned four to gets snaps, Caleb Okechukwu seemed most up to the task, with 14 tackles including a sack. We didn’t see a ton of Curtis Harper with Black and Williams getting the lion’s share of plays at tackle. Drew Tuazama continues to flash some big play ability (two TFLs), but also a persistent involvement in silly penalties.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse has been emphasizing the defensive line in recent classes, despite needing one less player on the field for the position group at any given time. Yet, we didn’t see much from the younger players this past fall — either because of the entrenched vets or because they weren’t ready just yet. Key for the 2021 line will be the continued evolution toward the roles in the 3-3-5, but also a development of the youth that will be stepping in soon.

If the returning players are able to show improvement with regard to scheme next year, that’s a rising tide that lifts all boats with this defense, freeing up the linebackers and secondary to make more plays and be more aggressive. Looking back at this past year, the line definitely had its moments despite not being the best fit for what they’re tasked with doing. Still, the ideal outcome (whether all four main contributors are back or not) is a better fit in 2021.

Grade: C+