To say that the 2019 season for the Syracuse Orange offensive line was a rough one is a bit of an understatement. That said, if you’ve read anything around here about the offensive line, you’ll also know that I’m the definition of an apologist for the group during the latter half of the season.
While the initial offensive line last season wasn’t thought to be a cause for optimism, it wasn’t going to be a major concern either. Three returning players, Airon Servais, Evan Adams and Sam Heckel, all had starting experience, and the Orange had seemingly shored things up with an All-Sun Belt Conference graduate transfer in Ryan Alexander. By the time the Orange got through camp though, much had changed. Heckel was out for an indefinite amount of time, that ended up being all season, Servais had to move back inside to center, not his preferred tackle position, redshirt sophomore Carlos Vettorello had been penciled in as the starting right tackle instead of Alexander, and now he had to switch to left tackle, with Alexander starting on the right.
That said, if we use this season as a sacrificial one, especially since it’s completed, the Orange return four players who finished the season on a relatively high note. Vettorello got an entire season starting at two different positions, Servais is returning for a redshirt senior season, Dakota Davis has solidified his position at right guard and Matthew Bergeron, the true freshman, got valuable starts at right tackle to finish out the season.
To further this thought line, David Hale from ESPN decided to do the legwork and broke down offensive line metrics on the whole ACC. If you get a chance, check his thread on twitter out (linked below) as there are a plethora of good points within. He even ranks the Orange as the fourth best returning offensive line unit in the conference.
So is there hope for Syracuse? I'd say there's actually reason for LOTS of enthusiasm. The Orange return 4 likely starters: Servais, Davis, Vortello & Bergeron. But those guys were on the field together just 38% of snaps last year. These splits are insane... pic.twitter.com/izIHqvoDOI— Hi, I’m David (@ADavidHaleJoint) May 21, 2020
I may or may not have talked about this before, but it seems like the Syracuse line is in a spot that is trending up. The statistics support the fact that after the second line shift of the year, after Ryan Alexander left the program and forced Bergeron into the starting role, that a solid core of a unit was formed. As that switch happened after the Florida State game, the unit only had 38% of potential offensive snaps together, though these snaps also coincided with the line looking much better than it had earlier in the year.
The deltas in the first down yards per rush are astounding. While this unit was on the field together, either with Vettorello at tackle and Servais at center, or vice versa, the Orange gained more than 2.5 additional yards per first down rush attempt. They also increased yards before contact, which is a good measure of offensive line run blocking and push by almost a yard per carry. I don’t have the hard data, but would assume if you pulled the final three games instead of four, with the final positional shift, that the difference in the numbers would be even more stark.
Though the defensive fronts that this unit faced (Boston College, Duke, Louisville and Wake Forest), weren’t the same caliber as that of Clemson, three were in the top five conference defensive fronts. That said, these numbers seem to be greater than the spread you’d expect to see between the groups of teams, even offset by the Clemson factor. Returning four starters and hopefully getting Florida transfer Chris Bleich a waiver to slot in for the departing Evan Adams, could leave this unit as a strength heading into the fall.