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Syracuse 2020 spring football preview: Offensive line

An early look at a contentious group from last season...

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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 will start soon, and we now have a vague timeline for that. Ahead of those festivities getting started, we’re previewing each position group on the roster and specifically, on campus right now. Last week, we dove into the receiving game.

Today’s topic:

How does the Orange address the issues along the offensive front?

Who’s gone?

The players leaving the unit are Evan Adams, Sam Heckel, Andrejas Duerig and Mike Clark. Adams was a four year starter between the two guard positions. He was a steady hand along the offensive front last year and is going to be a large gap to fill for the 2020 season.

After a 2019 spent wondering if he would return, Sam Heckel will be leaving the team this season due to medical reasons. Heckel was penciled in as the starter at center prior to his setback and would have likely stepped back into that role this season. Unfortunately he will not be rejoining the 2020 camps for the Orange.

Duerig is also leaving, garnering snaps with the special teams units and backing up the centers.

Who’s on campus?

Everyone else from last year along the line is currently on campus for spring football, which means four of the five starting linemen that finished the year are returning. Airon Servais, Carlos Vettorello, Dakota Davis and Matthew Bergeron all will be coming back in their prior positions.

In addition to the returning starters, Anthony Red, Darius Tisdale and Patrick Davis, who all saw minutes last year are coming back. Looking to develop further will be Qadir White, Austin Chandler, Ryan Kisselstein, Wil Froumy and Josh Kosciol.

Also on campus, having enrolled for the spring semester are Florida transfer Chris Bleich and JUCo transfer Mark Petry. Both will look to use the spring season to ease in the transfer process, though it is yet to be determined if Bleich will be eligible for the 2020 campaign.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Coming in with the Class of 2020 will be tackle Garth Barclay. Barclay is a 6-foot-7 tackle from York, Pa. He was a consensus three star recruit and will likely look to redshirt this year and add some weight to his frame, coming in at around 250 pounds.

What does the starting offensive line look like?

As four of the five starters are returning, it’s likely that you see those four where they ended the season in 2019. The current lineup looks to be Airon Servais at left tackle, Carlos Vettorello at center, Dakota Davis at left guard and Matthew Bergeron at right tackle. This leaves the left guard as the wild card position.

If Chris Bleich is awarded a transfer waiver, which in itself potentially relies heavily on a proposal in front of the NCAA to allow one “free” transfer to students, which wouldn’t rely on the need for waivers to be eligible immediately. This proposal will be ruled on in April and we’ll know more then, but Bleich is likely the fifth starter if he gets his waiver. Penciling in a starter from Florida seems to just make sense when you look at it.

If he isn’t granted a waiver, it comes down to one of Patrick Davis, Anthony Red or Darius Tisdale. All of them at various points have been the “next man in” or worked at the guard position and should provide a good level of competition to fill Adams’ vacated seat.

Who are the next men in?

If you had to slot a two-deep going into the spring, I would imagine that Patrick Davis and Anthony Red are backing up the tackle positions, Tisdale and maybe Qadir White are the backup guards and Servais is probably the backup center. It’s possible that they’ve had one of the other linemen working at center to provide depth there, but we won’t know until they put something out to that effect.

The hope here is that White, the former four star recruit has put in some work this offseason and is going to live up to the hype that he had when the Bronx native signed with the Orange. His emergence can only help the whole unit out.

What are the most glaring things that need to be fixed on the line?

I guess, to answer that question, you have to actually define the primary issue up front. During the 2019 campaign, the Orange gave up 50 sacks for 297 yards. This put them almost at the actual bottom of Division I, at 128th in the nation. There are 130 Division I FCS teams. Only Old Dominion and Akron gave up more average yards per sack, and Miami (FL) gave up one more sack on the year, so depending on the metric, the Orange were either in the bottom three or four in this statistical category.

That said, most of those statistically horrible games came with a different front five. Only 15 of the 50 sacks were given up with this combination of players and only 8 were given up with this combination in their projected positions. Prior to the Florida State game, the Orange had given up eight or more sacks three times, to Clemson, NC State and Pittsburgh. The Orange then gave up another 7 to Florida State in Bergeron’s first game starting for the departed Ryan Alexander, but tightened down in the final three games and averaged 1.67 sacks per game.

In those final three games, the run game also looked improved to a degree, averaging 242 yards on the ground to finish the year off. While the defenses faced weren’t the Clemson, NC State, Pitt, or Florida State caliber, that iteration of the offensive line passed the look test and had the statistical turnout to prove it. Compared to early in the season, those numbers look to hold some promise for the upcoming year.

Will Sterlin Gilbert’s offense help develop this offensive line?

Somewhere out there, there is a Baber’s coaching tree member that won’t lean into the halfback dive. Apparently according to USF fans, Gilbert is not that member of the Baber’s coaching tree. Under Lynch we saw a lot of delayed handoff dives or off guard runs with a pulling backside guard or tackle. If we can either alter that playcalling a little, mix in some off tackle work, with two returning starters, and improve the speed and technique of the pulling guards, it can definitely help out.

Too many times over the past year would the guard or tackle pull, only to be blown up in the hole. If a pulling guard isn’t creating space on the end or linebacker he’s trapping, it completely defeats the point of the playcall. Ideally this works itself out in the wash and we see improvement along that front.

What can this unit do to protect Tommy DeVito?

Overall, DeVito working with this unit more during the offseason should allow them to gain more of a rapport and keep Tommy from having happy feet again. Without the trust in his line, DeVito rushed reads, left the pocket too quick and didn’t trust where pressure was coming from last season, which led to poor decision making all around.

With Servais playing that blindside tackle role and Vettorello being shifted to center, it seems to have shored up protection in both areas, which was an issue last year. Bergeron at right tackle seems to work better with Dakota Davis as well, not leaving him on an island and leaking pressure to DeVito with missed blocks that weren’t necessarily his fault.

While there were a number of calls for offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh to be one of the coaching changes in the offseason, the fact that he was able to make some moves and figure it out, to a degree last year may have saved his season and position.

After being thrown the Heckel injury in preseason camp, forcing a major shuffling of the squad, he made the decision to start Bergeron over Alexander, then made the Servais and Vettorello swap. I have no way to speculate on how or why the moves didn’t happen earlier, but they did and they seemed to have a positive effect on unit play. He also was instrumental in bringing in Bleich, which couldn’t have hurt.