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Syracuse football 2021 season report card: Defensive Line

How’d year two of the 3-3-5 scheme go for the men in the trenches?

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

We’re not done with the 2021 Syracuse Orange football season just yet. Despite a forgettable finish to the year, plenty of notable things occurred in year six of Dino Babers’s tenure, and TNIAAM wants to discuss all of them — no matter how bad or good.

Position-by-position grades for the offensive side of the ball wrapped up last week (check out quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and offensive line), so this week is defense and special teams. We’re starting things off with:

Defensive Line

A senior-laden defensive line looked rough around the edges as the group adjusted to a new 3-3-5 scheme with minimal offseason to do it. But those players returned in 2021 as experienced “super seniors.” And with another year under their belts in Tony White’s system, they certainly showed improvement as the defense took major strides during the first half of the season. At least until most things came undone late on this side of the ball.

After a couple years of aggressive, disruptive play up front for Syracuse, the 2020 season didn’t feature much of it despite the experience the team had there, so this fall was a bit of a redemption tour. Former McNeese transfer Cody Roscoe was one of the most dynamic pass-rushers in the ACC all season, and received first-team all-conference honors as a result. Josh Black and Kingsley Jonathan were plenty disruptive as well. And while McKinley Williams didn’t put up gaudy numbers from the interior, he was still one of the team’s top run-stuffers.

According to Pro Football Focus, Bear had a 74.1 run defense rating — which was fifth on the team and best among Orange linemen. He also graded out as the top defensive lineman as an overall defender, despite a team-low 29.3 tackle rating.

Really, despite the late collapse for this defense, it was still a pretty solid group against the run all year. Just four opponents ran for 150 or more yards (Virginia Tech had the most with 260), and just four averaged more than four yards per carry (FSU led there with 6.7 yards per). Now, I would say that those numbers are skewed a bit since teams had such an easy time passing against Syracuse later in the year, and sack numbers also create some false narratives. But on paper, SU was top-30 against the run, allowing just 126 yards per game — the program’s best figure since the 2009 team allowed barely over 100 per.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at North Carolina State William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

Even taking the sack stuff into account (and you should to some extent since the Orange had 37 on the season), the team’s play up front did make a major difference for at least the first nine games that it simply didn’t the previous season. SU was top 30 nationally in both sacks and tackles for loss this year. It’s notable that a bunch of those came from the linebackers — we’ll get there later this week — but quality play on the line at least helped make that more of a possibility in some cases.

We knew when Syracuse switched to the 3-3-5 that the line would be more tasked with run stopping while linebackers were more involved in pass rushing, and that’s held true through two seasons. And while we wouldn’t say that PFF ratings are the end-all be-all when judging whether a specific player is effective, those ratings do paint a questionable picture for this line in 2021.

For instance, of regular contributors on the line, Bear and Kingsley Jonathan are the only players to rate among the top 10 Orange run defenders. Kevon Darton and Cody Roscoe are it as pass-rushers. This was a team whose aggressiveness was fueled by a variety of looks and players from the back eight blitzing at various points. And now without the super-seniors that did contribute in 2021, there are a slew of questions for the line going forward.

Perhaps the above is part of why Syracuse let go of long-time defensive staffer Vince Reynolds immediately following the season. The numbers these past couple years were alright, with some highlights (Roscoe’s performance this year being one of them). But depth wasn’t necessarily developed in any real way, and it’s clear that most of the players on the line still weren’t recruited for White’s scheme.

Bringing in a new coach for the position group could mean players that are a better fit for what the 3-3-5 asks of them, and a potential upgrade in the level of talent being brought into the program on the line. That’s no knock on the guys that just graduated or are still with SU. But having a recruiting-minded position coach who can also hit the trail with specific emphasis on an immediate talent influx on the line is crucial to avoid a major step back in 2022.

The nature of this season’s late collapse makes most positions pretty tough to grade, but the defense will deal with this even more so because it’s tough to pinpoint key issues the same way they stood out on the offensive side of the ball. As a group, Syracuse’s line had a decent year. But you could question whether it was decent enough given the experience the team brought back — and the experience it failed to really develop for the future. Roscoe’s accomplishments certainly count for something, though.

Grade: B-