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Syracuse football 2020 spring preview: Linebackers

A whole lot of new, without much time to put it all together.

Syracuse v Maryland Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange football team 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 been cancelled amid coronavirus fears, so that’s not necessarily going to help this team with new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Still, we’ll be finishing up the last few position group previews anyway, focusing on the players currently enrolled.

Last week, we glanced at a rebuilding defensive line. This time around:

Can the linebackers succeed despite a third straight year of overhaul?

Who’s gone?

SU’s top tacklers from last season, Lakiem Williams (110) and Andrew Armstrong (78). While the two put up some gaudy numbers in the raw stops department — and Williams showed a strong ability to get into the backfield with 12.5 TFLs — it was not always smooth sailing for either in their lone seasons as starters. Still, they had experience and made plays, which is something this team may be desperate for in 2020.

Who’s on campus?

A slew of younger players, though only a handful have some real experience under their respective belts so far. Mikel Jones saw the field quite a bit when the Orange were in a 4-3 alignment last year, and he tallied 38 stops and two tackles for loss on the year. Juan Wallace recorded seven tackles, while Lee Kpogba and Geoff Cantin-Arku each had one apiece. Additionally Tyrell Richards, who was technically a lineman last year, recorded 14 stops as a sort of hybrid player. Kadeem Trotter appeared in six games, but didn’t record a stop.

Joining the linebacker corps. this year are former defensive ends Steven Linton and Ishmael Goulbourne, who both redshirted last season but switched to linebacker this spring. They’re both pretty athletic guys who would’ve had to put on a few pounds to be effective on the line in the ACC. Now, as outside linebackers, they’ll be a better physical fit right now. True frosh Stefon Thompson is also on campus, as is walk-on Abrahim Kenneh.

Who’s arriving this summer?

No one, actually, barring a position change or a transfer addition.

Syracuse v North Carolina State Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

What’s the biggest change for the linebackers created by the new 3-3-5 scheme?

This 3-3-5 scheme creates more flexibility for one of the outside linebackers, allowing them to zone blitz more. While SU saw plenty of that in the old Brian Ward defense, but that was largely with four down linemen. Blitzing a linebacker here doesn’t expose the same holes — especially against spread offenses. This is where a player like Richards (or newly converted Goulbourne or Linton) can thrive.

if that’s not a big enough change, having that flexible “5” spot could be another place to plug in a linebacker when the situation calls for it should be. While the other two LB spots are more stay-at-home roles, the additional linebacker (when plugged in) creates versatility that previous schemes haven’t had.

Will this young group be able to stop the run more effectively than SU has the last couple years?

Earlier, I mentioned the nice-looking counting stats for Syracuse’s departed linebackers. The underlying issue is that they’d regularly come at great risk for occasional rewards. Syracuse allowed over 200 rushing yards per game last year on 4.91 yards per carry. That’s not all on the linebackers, but their abilities (or lack thereof) to stop the run were a major part of the team’s defensive struggles in 2019.

On the contrary, 2018 looks significantly better, allowing 4.3 yards per carry and just short of 163 yards per game on the ground — though that’s a tale of two seasons. After finding themselves struggling to stop the run through six weeks (in part due to over-pursuit and trying to get behind the line), SU made adjustments that year in the back half.

In 2019, those adjustments never really happened. The Orange allowed five yards per carry or more six times last season, including in three of the last five games. You’ll likely most remember embarrassing efforts vs. Boston College (7.63 per rush) and Louisville (9.02). The main culprit, in my view: not reading and reacting, and not having players stay at home when the run struggles were obvious.

The fact that the 3-3-5 is designed to have two stay-at-home linebackers at least (and potentially a third depending on what you do with that “5” means it’s at least better suited to stop the run. And maybe even slow down dual-threat QBs, who’ve been a thorn in the Orange’s side for much of the last decade-plus. This group’s littered with inexperience, yes. But they should be able to plug into those roles well and at least seem marked improvement from last year’s results.

NFL: JUL 26 Cardinals Training Camp Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What does new linebackers coach Chris Achuff bring to the table?

As noted when Achuff was hired, he hasn’t been a linebackers coach lately — and hasn’t been a linebacker coach in a 3-3-5 scheme, either. Still, his NFL experience is valuable from a recruiting standpoint and from the perspective of just helping develop quality pass-rushing talent, bringing aboard a coach who worked with former Orange great Chandler Jones.

If the linebacker position is going to be used the way we think in the 3-3-5, there are enough similarities to the Cardinals’ 3-4 that he should be able to pick things up quickly. His understanding of how the line and linebackers work in that system is applicable here, even if he obviously doesn’t have Jones at his disposal.

Which names are the expected starters heading into fall camp?

At the three primary linebacker spots, I’d expect Mikel Jones to start, and maybe Tyrell Richards to play that more flexible weakside role. But some early returns from spring ball showed that Geoff Cantin-Arku appeared to have come on strong as a potential starter as well, while Steven Linton also worked with the first team.

Back then, there was a lot of practice still to go, and just because a player is working with the first-team on day one doesn’t mean he’ll be starting by the end of April. Still, plugging in bigger players like Richards and Cantin-Arku at least tell you that Syracuse is emphasizing both size and speed within the scheme for 2019.

Jones, Cantin-Arku could be the consistent starters, with Richards flexing between the WILL and that versatile “5” role which he could split with corner Trill Williams depending on the situation. In that scenario, Linton’s potentially the third starter. Still, you’re going to see plenty of guys like Kpogba, Wallace and Trotter as SU now likely uses some of the September games to try out some different personnel looks to make up for the lost time in the offseason.