Want to stop hearing about the Syracuse Orange football season? Not so fast, we’re finishing up our season coverage with a daily report card on the positions. This week, you’ve seen the offense (Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers) and we’re finishing it off with everyone’s favorite position - the offensive line.
Come back next week to check in on the defense, but until then, let us know what you’re thinking on our grades in the comments.
I’ll start this off with a general discussion on the state of the unit. Heading into the year, they had only lost one body, Qadir White, the former four star project that hadn’t quite panned out into the player expected. As such, the unit was expected to be much improved with the addition of Chris Bleich from transfer and Mike Schmidt as the new coach from San Diego State.
I can say unequivocally, that they were an improved unit from last year. They literally blocked for the best single season a running back has had in Syracuse history, leading Sean Tucker to 1,496 yards on the year. At the end of the season last year (and also the year before), I made the following statement:
Big steps forward need to be taken with this line and a solid offseason of work needs to be put in, getting these guys on the same page. Getting Bleich into the mix and getting a lot of these returners back and healthy should* make a difference in the quality of play the Orange are seeing on the year.
I think that this definitely occurred and Schmidt knew what he was doing, increasing the effectiveness from the jump on the quality of run blocking on the year. With a full offseason next year, this can only get better, and this unit will only lose Airon Servais from the rotation, as Dakota Davis has announced he’s back for another go-around.
The unit improved, but it’s not like they were straight “A’s” across the board. To the breakdown!
Airon Servais - Servais has started more games than you can possibly imagine in Orange. He’s been consistently there, he’s been around for six years now, anchoring the line. You can’t deny the senior leadership, but his on-field performance wasn’t the greatest this season. Dare I say he got worked more over the middle than he had in the past. Playing center, the Orange will need to find a fill in that can step into his shoes.
Josh Ilaoa - Ilaoa had a rough go in his inserts into various games at both center and guard. He has some promise in what he’s doing, but his track record against the better competition he faced on the season was definitively lacking.
Chris Bleich - Coming off the redshirt from the transfer, Bleich had high expectations on the season. He was a solid contributor and definitely deserved to start, but his nagging injuries through the year opened the door for Kalan Ellis to show what he could do as well, which helps the Orange for the future. Chris was the second highest rated run blocker, and worked well comboing with both Servais and Bergeron on the year.
Dakota Davis - The veteran and returner from last year’s injury, he came back as a consistent contributor and even played tackle on the year. Dakota had a solid season, worked well with the players around him and adapted to some of the weird things thrown at him on the year.
Kalan Ellis - While far from perfect, Ellis was a major bright spot for the Orange. As a true freshman, it was a surprise when he popped into the depth chart at backup guard. After watching him, it was apparent why he popped into that position. Ellis came in and had a solid skill set, ending with the second best pass blocking grade on the team, and only player besides Bergeron above the Mendoza line in that category. The future is bright here.
Matthew Bergeron - The Rock. Not Dwayne Johnson, but the rock in this line. Consistent week in and week out, Bergeron was the top graded run (72.6) and pass (85.4) blocker on the team. He was consistently good, and occasionally great on the year. Not much to say about him, in the best way. Confirming he is returning would be a huge benefit to this unit.
Carlos Vettorello - While there were detractors prior to the season on Vettorello and his ability, I’m not one of them. I’d also assume that those watching the line play after his injury won’t be moving forward either. He came into his own a bit this season, and while not as good as Bergeron, played a decent game against a lot of quality edge rushers.
Darius Tisdale - Tisdale came into the starting lineup at tackle, initially rotating with Vettorello, then on the bench, and finally starting the last three games after Vett went down. He had a bit of a rough year. According to PFF.com, he graded out at a 4.4 pass blocking on the season. Not great. Tisdale had a knack for giving up his hips on an outside pass rush, similar to what Servais had issues with at tackle, but earlier in his pass set. It let rushers speed past him, or change direction on him relatively easily.
This season in general, the Orange did improve in sacks allowed, up from 116th in the nation (and 128th the prior year) up to 109th at 2.83 sacks per game allowed. Not great, but less abysmal than last season. That said, of those 38 sacks, only 13 were the line. The breakdown as follows for the linemen is quite one sided per PFF.com: Seven for Tisdale, and one each for the rest of the linemen that got any significant time. That’s a bit one sided. The unit did pass the look test in that they significantly looked better from last year. Prior to Tommy DeVito leaving, they did have him upright much more than prior seasons, and Garrett Shrader, if he decided to stay in pocket was better protected than we had seen in prior years.
Run blocking, the introduction of Mike Schmidt and the ability of the line to stay relatively healthy through the year helped them grade out higher than the prior year on a whole. The chemistry of the unit was improved, and the ability to open things for Sean Tucker improved, as seen by his record setting campaign. This one’s pretty indisputable.