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Syracuse football 2021 season report card: Linebackers

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A highlight of this season, for sure.

NCAA Football: Liberty at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 Syracuse Orange football season isn’t over until we say it is. So whether you want to rehash what went right and wrong during Dino Babers’s sixth season in charge, TNIAAM’s continuing to discuss it all.

After last week’s position-by-position grades on the offensive side of the ball (quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers & offensive line), we moved onto defense and special teams this week. Tuesday was defensive line. And now we’re covering:

Linebackers

Despite a pretty young group in 2020, the linebackers proved themselves to be the heart of Syracuse’s new 3-3-5 defense as they adjusted in real-time to the scheme. With a year under their belts, there were high expectations that the group could take another step forward in 2021. And thankfully, they did just that, especially early in the season when the defense was really steering the ship for the Orange as the offense continued to figure itself out.

While Tuesday’s article focused on where the line (Cody Roscoe aside) may have fallen short in terms of pass-rushing (understandable) and run-stopping (less so), it also pointed out just how much both aspects of this defense were impacted by a dynamic trio of linebackers. Mikel Jones was first-team All-ACC, Syracuse’s top defensive player per Pro Football Focus ratings, and wound up finishing the season with 110 tacklers. He was also the team’s second-best tackler per PFF (with an 86.6 rating), collected the most tackles for loss at 13 on the year, and was fifth in sacks with four. All of this a year after he tied for the ACC lead in interceptions.

Even as the headlines went to Jones, though, he was far from alone in his success. Stefon Thompson was SU’s top tacklers per PFF (with a pretty high 90.2 rating), had the second-most sacks with six, and was Syracuse’s third-best pass-rusher. Marlowe Wax was the team’s third-best tackler by rating (84.2), tallied five sacks and was third on the team in TFLs with nine.

In general, these three did it all for Syracuse, stopping the run, getting after opposing passers and playing relatively well in coverage, too. Jones was actually the team’s top-rated player in coverage with a 78.1 grade, and while he didn’t get his hand on any passes this year — surprising considering last year’s four picks — he was still an excellent defender that prevented passes from being completed in his area of the field.

Wax acquitted himself well enough in coverage, with a 68.9 grade, and while Thompson didn’t grade as well (57.1), it’s also less his job to defend opposing receivers than it is the role of the other two linebackers. All-in-all, these three wound up being among the ACC’s top linebacker groups by production. And in doing, so, they helped bail out other aspects of this defense — especially as the year wore on and some struggles started to emerge late in terms of stopping the pass.

NCAA Football: Liberty at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s anywhere you could point out an issue for the linebackers, though, it’s with regard to the experienced depth they finished the season with. While early-season returns benefited from having Geoff Cantin-Arku rotated in as a highly capable fourth linebacker, his decision to transfer out late did lend to some of the issues in coverage (even if not SU’s abilities to get into the backfield, which remained at season averages in the final contests).

Going forward, you’ll see more Anwar Sparrow and Leon Lowery in the mix, along with some of the younger players who redshirted this past season. The question will be how much we see the young guys start to get involved for 2022, though, and a lot of that depends on what Jones decides around the NFL Draft.

Admittedly, if you’re Jones, you’ve already accomplished a hell of a lot in three seasons, so that “50-50” feeling on going or not is largely dependent on scouts’ evaluations. Given his versatility defending the run and pass, he’s certainly going to be on radars as a potential impact player at the next level. That’s great for him and the program, really, in the long-term. In the short-term, however, it does create some concerns around what the team does to replace him given how important he’s been to the last two years of defensive outputs.

We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, though. In the meantime, any evaluation of this team and this defense needs to include heavy praise for linebacker play and Jones. When we transitioned to the 3-3-5, there was concern about how much we could rely on a young group. But Jones, Thompson and Wax have continually risen to the occasion. Their success is a blueprint that’s repeatable going forward, even if their specific skill sets are far from easily replaced. It’ll be interesting (and potentially concerning) to see how much the defense needs to lean on the linebackers for 2022.

Grade: A-