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Syracuse football 2020 season report card: Linebackers

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Syracuse at Pitt Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We couldn’t go into the holidays without finally, firmly closing the door on the 2020 Syracuse Orange football season, so we’ll continue our TNIAAM report cards through this Thursday.

With the offensive recaps wrapped up before the early signing period, we’ve moved onto the defense. Monday was the defensive line. Today, we’re talking:


Since Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett graduated, the linebackers have been a bit of a revolving door for Syracuse. Position changes, transfers, veterans that may not be ready, freshmen that needed more time... we’ve been waiting a few seasons for things to really settle down. The 2020 season potentially puts a stop to that churn, assuming the scheme and the players we saw work effectively now get to stay in place for awhile.

Of course, the season didn’t necessarily start out looking positive. SU allowed 4.5 yards per carry or more in four of the first five games (including 7.04 in the Liberty game), and the linebackers frequently looked out of place — caught between the old role of that focused on run-stopping and the new one of play-making both in the backfield and in coverage. But as we’ve seen before, the pieces started coming together by the midway point. And what we saw from this young group of linebackers to close out the season actually wound up being on the (very) short list of highlights from this disastrous year.

With the line struggling to plug holes against the run, the platoon of linebackers stepped up in a big way. From the Clemson game on, just one opponent (Notre Dame in the finale) averaged more than 4.1 yards per carry, while Louisville and NC State were both under three. Despite playing in just 10 games, Stefon Thompson was second on the team with 7.5 tackles for loss (two sacks), and was one of the team’s most disruptive defenders. Geoff Cantin-Arku and Marlow Wax also had 5.5 TFLs or more. Mikel Jones wound up leading the team with four interceptions, while also forcing two fumbles.

NCAA Football: Duke at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

From a pass-rushing perspective, they really came into their own by the second half of the year, too. Linebackers accounted for nearly half (12) of the team’s 25 sacks, with Cantin-Arku leading the way with four. Those aren’t big numbers, but given the dual role these linebackers are supposed to play defending against both the run and the pass, that’s also to be expected. The fact that aside from Jones, most of these players were seeing their first significant defensive snaps in college was an excellent sign of what’s to come.

The Pro Football Focus numbers bear that out as well. Thompson was the team’s second-rated defender with a 76.6 overall, He was also the top run defender at an impressive grade of 88.9, and was the rated sixth in the country against the run among all edge defenders. Jones (at an 80.9) was the team’s best pass-rusher among players with at least 100 snaps, and also led the team in “stops” (plays that qualify as a negative outcome for the offense). Cantin-Arku had the third-most pressures on the team with 18 and tied for the most QB hits with six.

Tyrell Richards — once thought of among the team’s top defenders but wound up slowed a bit this year as the younger players stepped up — was one of the team’s top tacklers (graded out with an 87), just behind Lee Kpogba, who led with an 89.7. It’s actually pretty stunning that we got this far into a linebacker recap before mentioning either player. There were just so many quality performances from the position.

I won’t make claims that anything this linebacker group did was necessarily eye-popping, but there was definitive and clear progress from a young group that definitely started to figure things out. As one bit of proof, Syracuse collected 30 of the team’s 70 TFLs over the final three weeks of the season.

The linebackers weren’t the best position group on the field for SU, but they also didn’t have to be with how well the secondary performed (we’ll get there on Wednesday). SU’s young linebackers fed off that, though, while also picking up the line’s issues here and there. Considering they’re the younger collection of players vs. a senior-heavy line, that wasn’t the outcome we necessarily expected.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Still, it worked — and worked despite a converted running back (Wax) and defensive end (Steve Linton) seeing a ton of snaps alongside another true frosh in Thompson, Richards, and two sophomores in Cantin-Arku and Jones (plus Kpogba, who found himself on the field plenty as well).

You’re already seeing what could be an impressive foundation for what’s ahead in the coming years as the Orange build these linebackers toward the future. If we can get something more resembling a full offseason for 2021, you’ll likely see players more comfortable in their roles within the 3-3-5. Some sort of pecking order potentially starts working itself out here too... though it’s not the worst thing if it doesn’t, given how having so many different linebackers available provided newfound versatility.

These linebackers will get some extra credit for improvement over the course of the year and exceeding what were very low expectations heading into the season. The bigger challenge will come next year, when we’re much more aware of what they’re capable of and they’ll be tasked with not just meeting that new standard, but improving upon it.

Grade: B