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Syracuse football 2020 position preview: Defensive line

SU says goodbye to a lot up front, so who takes their place?

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We’re still a week or so out from knowing more about college football’s 2020 season. In the meantime, though, we’re going to keep previewing this year as if it’s happening as planned.

Leading up to whenever this Syracuse Orange football season starts (if at all), we’re taking a weekly look at each position group on Syracuse’s roster, along with every player that may (or may not) make an impact this fall. Last week, Steve took over to discuss the offensive line and if the late-season improvements can hold. This time around, I’m talking about:

Defensive Line

The defensive line broke out for Syracuse in 2018, and with the core of that group back, it looked like we were in for another season of dominance up front. As you know by now, we didn’t necessarily get it. SU dipped from 3.31 sacks per game to 2.5 sacks per game year over year, and standout defensive end Alton Robinson was bottled up by a ton of double-teams, which knocked his numbers down considerably.

Syracuse’s overall defensive struggles didn’t really help either, leading to the mid-season firing of coordinator Brian Ward and the offseason switch to the 3-3-5 scheme that new DC Tony White will be installing. In the short term, the move helps the Orange deal with some depth and experience questions on the line, while also moving a handful of players to linebacker, where they can still impact pass-rushing... just differently.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Tackles

McKinley Williams, (Redshirt) Senior

We saw what happened to this line without Williams for much of last year, and it was great to see him back — even not at full strength — as a disruptive force in the middle. Now, with a whole offseason to heal, he’ll once again be the anchor for Syracuse up front, and a key part of stopping opposing rushing attacks (something SU struggled mightily with last year). The counting numbers won’t be eye-popping, but the more “Bear” can create chaos up front, the less we have to put on the Orange’s young linebackers from a run-stopping perspective (one of the problems in recent years).

Curtis Harper, (Redshirt) Junior

Given Williams’s extended absence last year, Harper got a lot more involved on defense, tallying 13 tackles and two sacks for the Orange. That experience could wind up paying off this year, if no one else moves to tackle. Harper would be only player beyond Williams with significant time on the field, and would need ot be ready to jump in as needed.

Joe Rondi, (Redshirt) Freshman

Rondi’s managed to add a lot of size since he initially committed to Syracuse a couple years ago, and that should put him in a good spot to take the field for SU at tackle if called upon. Since he has experience playing with a lighter frame, he potentially brings some moves to the table that are atypical of a tackle. Expect SU to get him snaps this year once games are out of hand (one way or the other).

Cooper Dawson, (Redshirt) Freshman

We didn’t see Dawson last season, but the hope is that the South Carolina product can start getting some reps. At 255 pounds, he may need to be a bit heavier for Syracuse to have use for him inside (for comparison, Williams is 291 pounds). However, the depth chart allows him to take another year (at least) to develop. He could get some work on special teams in the meantime.

Kevon Darton, (Redshirt) Freshman

Darton was listed as the team’s second-string tackle on the March depth chart, but at least some of that could be due to the fact that there were some injuries among this group. Still, the fact that the walk-on is already on the radar there means he’s impressed. His time may be limited to special teams this year, but he could be a surprise player if SU’s depth gets tested a bit.

Elijah “Bubba” Wright, Freshman

The Solvay standout showed himself a playmaker in high school, with 11 sacks, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and two interceptions as a senior. That skill set may make him a better fit for the outside, but the walk-on is already 260 pounds and SU seems pretty set with recent defensive end recruits. A redshirt this year seems pretty likely.

Patrick Alberga, Freshman

Alberga was a fearsome edge-rusher at Saranac Lake, but given his playing weight of 248 pounds and SU’s greater needs inside, he seems like a potential switch to the interior as time goes on. A redshirt season also seems likely, given how frequently SU keeps ‘shirts intact nowadays.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Ends

Kingsley Jonathan, Senior

We’ve seen a lot of Jonathan over the last three years, as he’s learned under Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman, and excelled when he gets on the field. Now, he’s likely one of the team’s starting ends, and when mixing this 3-3-5 system with the attacking style that seems here to stay, that could mean a big leap forward for him as a senior. He’s a long and athletic player who can get into passing lanes, and in an ideal season, he has the potential to get on some draft radars if the counting stats to show up.

Josh Black, (Redshirt) Senior

After a career that’s seemingly switched him from the interior to the edge numerous times, Black is likely to finish up where he started, at the end position. That said, if Williams needs help, he’s the most likely to shift right over. Black performed admirably as the team’s starting nose tackle last year, and is definitely one of the team’s strongest players. He had six TFLs (four sacks) and a pass break-up in 2019. At end, those numbers seem likely to increase significantly.

Cody Roscoe, Senior

Roscoe’s an exciting addition from McNeese State, where he notched 26 tackles for loss over the last three years, and displayed an impressive ability to both get after QBs (16 sacks) and deflect passes. That seems to fit exactly what Syracuse is doing on defense, and given the turnover at the end position, he seems to have a real shot to start right off the bat for SU. Even if not, he’ll be on the field plenty.

Drew Tuazama, (Redshirt) Freshman

Despite the ejection for targeting last year, we liked what we saw from Tuazama in limited action last year, as he displayed a level of aggression and speed that SU can always use more of. After seeing him at the top of the depth chart back in March, he’s clearly vying for time on the field. With two seniors in front of him, though, we likely see him in more of a reserve role this season before he takes on a potential starting role in 2021.

Caleb Okechukwu, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Okechukwu is another player who we’ve barely seen since he arrived on campus (just one appearance vs. Louisville in 2018), but has some exciting speed to bring to the end position. Though he was backing up Tuazama back in the spring, two players — Jonathan and Roscoe — have since been added to the depth chart. He’s still key reserve, and should see time in one-sided games.

Zach Morton, (Redshrt) Junior

Sorry if this sounds like a broken record, but we haven’t really seen much of Morton yet, after just four games last year (and zero in the two before). At 6-foot-4 and 248 pounds, he brings some good speed and athleticism to the table. It’s just going to be hard to break through this group above him. He could still see some reps on special teams, however.

Jason Muñoz, (Redshirt) Freshman

We might be another year from seeing him get significant time on defense, but Muñoz is an intriguing young player who will benefit from getting garbage time snaps and could work his way up the depth chart in the future. Lucky for him, there aren’t a lot of known commodities at the end position right now, though.

Latarie Kinsler, Freshman

Kinsler was once a four-star prospect before injuries derailed his senior year. So even if he’s not on the field this year, there’s still a lot of promise for what he can round into at SU. At 213 pounds, he’s a bit slimmer than every other player on the line. Redshirting a season and adding some bulk and strength would be productive for the future.

Leon Lowery, Freshman

Similar to Kinsler, Lowery could also stand to add a few pounds (currently coming in at 225 pounds), and seems likely to get a redshirt given the number of players in front of him. That’s not a bad thing at all, and the 6-foot-4 end could be a surprise come 2021 if he adds 10-15 pounds.

Kevin Lemieux, Freshman

The Massachusetts product was one of the better players in the state for the class of 2020, and at 6-foot-4 and 252 pounds, he comes in needing to learn more about the scheme than adding weight. That’s a good thing that may actually help him see more time on special teams. But if he’s redshirting, that works just fine too.

McNeese State v BYU Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

The lack of experience shouldn’t necessarily be startling for this group — we’ve known about it for some time. Yet it’s still a little worrisome. There are only a handful of players with any real college experience on this line, and an injury to any one of them potentially forces some very young players into action. At the same time we’ve seen plenty of young players succeed here before. Josh Black, who’s likely to start this year, was one of them back when he arrived on campus, in fact.

Still, you probably don’t want to bank on that. I’m excited to see some of the newer players in action at some point, and think the play style for Syracuse may actually lead to getting more bodies on the field, which should help develop meaningful depth. However, we’re largely riding with the four seniors (Williams, Black, Jonathan, Roscoe) as the core of this three-man front in the early goings. Hopefully the 3-3-5 continues to facilitate some quality pass-rushing too. These players are all significantly more effective when the defense is based on generating pressure and havoc from the line.