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Syracuse 2020 spring football preview: Defensive line

How does SU fill some very big shoes?

Holy Cross v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange football team has added 23 new players this offseason — courtesy of recruiting and the transfer portal. And with said additions, we’ve turned the page to the 2020 season... despite the fact that kickoff isn’t for quite a few months still.

Spring practice has officially started, and will keep moving through April. But spring ball gets going, we’re previewing each position group on the roster and specifically, the players on campus right now. Last week, Steve dove deep into the offensive line.

Today’s topic:

How does Syracuse replace crucial pieces of the defensive line?

Who’s gone?

Quite a few familiar and important faces. Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman are the biggest absences as they attempt to take their talents to the NFL. The two standout defensive ends may have seen their stats decline a bit last season, but they still carried the pass rushing load for most of the last three seasons, combining for 34 sacks in that stretch (20 of those coming in 2018).

That’s not to take away from the achievements of the rest of the departing group either. Brandon Berry, Shaq Grosvenor and Kenneth Ruff all depart as well following their own significant contributions in 2019. Berry and Ruff, in particular, were big parts of the defensive line rotation and the former wound up leading the team in sacks with 5.5.

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

Who’s on campus?

Despite the long list of names heading out the door, there are still a lot of players left on campus — chief among them McKinley Williams, Kingsley Jonathan and Josh Black who have the most experience of the returning linemen on the roster. They’re joined by returning scholarship players like Cooper Dawson, Curtis Harper, Zach Morton, Jason Muñoz, Caleb Okechukwu, Joe Rondi and Drew Tuazama. True freshman Latarie Kinsler and walk-on Kevon Darton are also here for spring practice, and Chris Elmore has played on the line before despite spending most of his time at fullback/tight end for the Orange.

Who’s arriving this summer?

SU brings in even more reinforcements on the line, with Josh Ilaoa, Kevin Lemieux and Leon Lowery coming aboard. Justin Barron may also wind up on the D-line, though he currently appears slated to be a wide receiver (at least based on his Twitter profile).

Who does the new 3-3-5 scheme affect the defensive line?

Quite a bit, potentially. Without a fourth linemen, this group can be a bit more versatile with how it deploys its personnel, leaning on the linebackers and flex defender (the “5” in the 3-3-5) when needed for pass-rush help. We know McKinley Williams will man the nose tackle spot. But who plays at the ends can now be a little more situational.

Based on experience, we’ll likely see Jonathan and Black most. But virtually anyone from the list of players above (and maybe even some of the linebackers) could slot in if new defensive coordinator Tony White is attempting to get more aggressive going after opposing QBs. Speaking of...

How aggressive will the pass rush be under Tony White?

In some ways, it’s tough to say, since we haven’t really seen what a White-led defense looks like just yet. However, previous defenses he was part of like Arizona State and San Diego State were largely in the top half of the country in sacks, even if they were a little less havoc-oriented than what we’ve seen for the last two years at Syracuse — and what we previous saw for the Orange under Scott Shafer as both a head coach and defensive coordinator.

Previous White pass rushes seemed to mix up an emphasis on the line along with linebackers depending on the personnel. So while there are capable pass-rushers on this line (Jonathan, particularly, has shown himself adept in the past). Don’t be surprised to see the linebacker group — especially some of the converted players like Tyrell Richards, Ishmael Goulbourne and Steve Linton — get in on the act a bit more.

Holy Cross v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Which of the young players seems most poised to break out this spring?

Early spring practice reporting from Syracuse.com’s Stephen Bailey indicated that with Jonathan injured right now, first-team reps have been going to Black (a senior) and Tuazama (a redshirt freshman) so far. Okechukwu getting in there is a good thing, and Rondi now seems to possess the size to get into the mix at 269 pounds.

I’d keep an eye on Tuazama and Okechukwu right now, along with true frosh Latarie Kinsler, who was one of the biggest adds in the 2020 recruiting class. Kinsler’s definitely on the lighter end right now at just 215 pounds, but could be one of the main pieces plugged in if White goes for something more creative with the pass rush. Tuazama showed early promise last season, and it should be interesting to see how he develops now as he likely gets some extended time with the first-team this spring.

Will the 3-3-5 help McKinley Williams return to form?

As we’re all keenly aware, an early injury wound up sidelining Williams for much of the 2019 campaign, and his absence was a large part of last year’s defensive struggles for SU. Without the run stuffer in place, Syracuse was carved up in the middle. And while he still collected eight stops and a half-sack in three games last year, he wasn’t necessarily all the way back.

So 2020 allows him to regain his health and that potential NFL trajectory he was on, becoming a key cog in this defense once again. On the one hand, having fewer down linemen in a 3-3-5 could mean it’s easier for opposing teams to attend to him — especially against the run. On the other, having a flex defender out there could potentially give him more room to work as blockers try to focus more on the speed coming from the outside.

Having Williams back as the anchor for this line should mean great things for this team’s run-stopping abilities, though. And that should ultimately help out his draft stock, regardless of what his box score looks like.