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Syracuse football 2020 position preview: Linebackers

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“New” once again in 2020

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 08 Wagner at Syracuse

We know who the Syracuse Orange will be facing IF there’s a college football season this fall. Of course, that second part is still very much in question, but we’ll keep previewing things until we know games aren’t happening.

In advance of this Orange football season (whenever/if ever it may start), we are taking a weekly look at each position group on Syracuse’s roster, plus every player that may (or may not) make an impact this year. Last week, we discussed the revamped defensive line. This time around, it’s another reset with:

Linebackers

After years of stability at linebacker, recent seasons have thrown the position for a loop at Syracuse. Zaire Franklin’s four seasons as a stalwart now seem like a distant memory given the turnover SU has experienced since. But this third straight year of hitting reset at linebacker should create the building blocks for a more stable future, once we figure out who fits where in the team’s newest alignment — a 3-3-5 that changes up the asks for players once again.

Complicating things a little more is the fact that the Orange lost two veteran linebackers to transfer this offseason, in Juan Wallace and Kadeem Trotter. The fact that they’re just the latest in a long list of linebackers to depart in recent years tells you a lot of what you need to know about this group for 2020: They’re young and inexperienced, but that could provide some intrigue along with the growing pains in the immediate term.

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

Tyrell Richards, (Redshirt) Junior

In the last two defensive schemes, Richards was a bit of a ‘tweener in that he wasn’t a perfect fit to be an end but couldn’t cover well enough to be a linebacker. His freakish athleticism and pass-rushing ability should finally be put to use effectively in the 3-3-5 scheme, however. He’s currently slated as the starting weakside linebacker, and that should mean a big improvement from last year’s 14 stops. Christian recently covered just how important Richards will be in the 3-3-5, and like him, I’m excited to see Richards largely used as an edge rusher this year.

Geoff Cantin-Arku, Sophomore

We didn’t see much of Cantin-Arku last year save on kickoffs, yet he’s now potentially the Orange’s starting middle linebacker. He has the sort of speed/size combo that make him an ideal player in the middle, but now we just need to see what he’s able to do in game situations on defense. The new schedule won’t give him the time to wade into things. Cantin-Arku has exciting potential in coverage or as a blitzer, though.

Steve Linton, (Redshirt) Freshman

Linton got some late-season work last year at defensive end, but now moves to strongside linebacker (where he could very well start) as a quick and rangy option that could have the versatility needed for this position. Honestly, the fact that a player who hasn’t really played linebacker got to the top of the depth chart already should mean good things for this defense given the names he’s in front of. The big question will be how he fares in coverage.

Mikel Jones, Sophomore

After he tallied 38 tackles as a true freshman last year, it was reasonable to expect Jones to be starting somewhere in year two — and he still might. But back in March, he was behind Cantin-Arku at middle linebacker, and his size (six feet vs. Cantin-Arku’s 6-foot-4 frame) definitely played some role there, as Stephen Bailey detailed at the time. On paper, Jones is one of the more talented players on this defense. It seems unlikely he isn’t heavily involved, even as this linebacker group clearly gets bigger.

Lee Kpogba, Sophomore

Kpogba was another former standout recruit whose presence on the second line of the depth chart may not have been expected. Yet, currently sitting behind Richards at weakside linebacker, it does make sense. The 6-foot-1, 224-pound player spent most of his time on special teams last year and it’s no easy feat to supplant the elder Richards. Still expect Kpogba to be a larger part of the defensive rotation this year. He’s definitely going to see the field.

Ishmael Goulbourne, (Redshirt) Freshman

Like Linton, Goulbourne made the switch from defensive end to linebacker this offseason, and the 6-foot-3 former pass-rusher could potentially slot in right behind Linton on the depth chart too. Goulbourne has plenty of length but is just 207 pounds at the moment — definitely on the lighter side, which potentially necessitated his position change. He’s an interesting player to slot in right now, since his skill set says edge rusher, while his position (strongside linebacker) asks him to play in coverage a bit.

Stefon Thompson, Freshman

The move toward taller players at the linebacker position might not sound like a great sign for Thompson’s playing time, yet he’s also 235 pounds and was a bruiser on both sides of the ball in high school. Stefon’s January arrival should also help potentially get him on the field sooner rather than later, even if just on special teams. It seems unlikely he can break through in the middle right now, but he has a rotation shot on the outside.

Anwar Sparrow, Freshman

Sparrow was a late addition to this 2020 recruiting class, but brings a lot of speed and play-making ability (19 tackles for loss, four sacks, four forced fumbles as a high school senior) with him — which should excite most. That skill set probably means a future weakside linebacker role. Ideally, he’s able to redshirt this season, though, if the team’s health allows.

Marlowe Wax, Freshman

Instead of a bulldozing, 230-pound running back, Syracuse gets Wax on campus as a linebacker in part out of necessity given this offseason’s transfers. Still, with a logjam in the backfield anyway, you take the experienced linebacker who was a playmaker in a similar role as Sparrow while in high school. He’s a redshirt candidate because you’d like to have him around awhile. But he’s big enough that you don’t mind him seeing the field if the moment calls for it.

Abrahim Kenneh, (Redshirt) Freshman

Kenneh redshirted as a walk-on last season, and could be in line for some special teams opportunities this year. Despite being a walk-on, the lack of experienced depth at linebacker could mean he’s tossed into action. Let’s hope it doesn’t have to come to that, however.

Ryan Dolan, Freshman

The Novato, Calif. walk-on basically committed at the buzzer back in spring, but like the other walk-on additions this year, we don’t exactly know when he can join the roster. His 5-foot-11, 225-pound frame is on the smaller end, sure. However, no matter the scheme, Syracuse has never shied away from shorter linebackers. He probably redshirts this season, though.

Tyler Cook, Freshman

Cook is a New Jersey product and 6-foot-1 linebacker who was on FCS radars before taking up Syracuse on a preferred walk-on offer back in spring. He was less a dynamic playmaker in high school and more of a stay-at-home linebacker against the run, which could actually be a pretty good change for a group that trends toward rushing the passer. He’s also a likely redshirt.

Syracuse v Maryland Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

We’d know a lot more about how this linebacker corps. would look if not for the pandemic preventing them from being on campus for too long with new defensive coordinator Tony White. They still learned the scheme this offseason. However, it’s tough to really substitute for that time on the field where these players could be tested at various spots and we could see just how much they’re able to function within the 3-3-5 they’ll line up in this fall.

Their lack of experience overall could create some rough patches, especially without the non-conference cupcakes to warm up with. Still, there is a chance that we see the future building blocks emerge by the end of the year (again, provided there is a season). We know Richards appears to be a lock. The rest is up for grabs. That may not be ideal for beating better competition in 2020. I like the potential it provides for down the road, though.