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Syracuse men's lacrosse season preview: Defense

If there is a weakness for this team, it’s on the defensive end of the field where there are some holes to fill and questions to answer.

Army v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Welcome back to the Syracuse Orange men’s lacrosse season preview series.

We've already examined the Orange’s potent attack and offensive midfield units in this series, and with just a few days to go until SU’s season opener against the Army Black Knights on Sunday, February 21, we’re turning our attention to the defensive end of the field.

From replacing a couple of key pieces to figuring out where the new additions fit into the mix, there are a few questions to be answered for Lelan Rogers’ group.

In this article, we’re going to break down the defense into three pieces: the close defense, the long-stick midfielders, and the short-stick midfielders. Let’s get to it:

Close Defense

We’ll start with a unit that essentially returns in-tact. Yes, technically they lost Nick Mellen from last years’s squad, but Mellen got injured in the third quarter of the first game and never made it back before the season got stopped short. Nevertheless, any time you lose a two-time All-American and former captain off your roster, it hurts.

Since Mellen mostly didn’t play in 2020, last year’s starting close defense returns and is made up of a trio of redshirt juniors in Brett Kennedy, Nick DiPietro, and Grant Murphy.

Kennedy, who will take over the coveted No. 11 jersey from the departed Mellen, is the team’s top cover defenseman. In my opinion, his superior position is LSM, but I believe that Desko and Rogers feel the team needs his experience and leadership the most at close defense.

All three have been at SU since at least 2018, but their experience in this unit is more limited than their time in college. Kennedy and Murphy just converted to close-D last year, while DiPietro was only a man-down unit specialist until last year.

In a sense, 2020 almost ended up working out like a trial run for them to get some experience playing as a group, gain some chemistry, and work on their all-important communication.

The defensive end of the field was very active for the Orange in the transfer market this offseason, as the program brought in three transfers in Gettysburg redshirt senior Mitch Wykoff, Utah redshirt sophomore Nick Hapney, and Furman redshirt junior Cole Horan.

All three are listed on the SU athletics website as close defenders, so it’ll be interesting to see where and how much each is deployed this season. Wykoff seems to be one to keep an eye on. Although he comes from the D-III ranks, he was a thee-time All-American and ground ball machine while at Gettysburg.

Some other names to keep an eye on with this unit are redshirt junior Jerry Staats, who was an All-American at OCC before suffering a season-ending injury in preseason 2019, and true freshman Caden Kol, who was the No. 100 rated recruit in this year’s class.

Long-Stick Midfield

Definitely the least experienced part of the defense, the long-stick midfield position is in a state of transition.

The best LSM on the roster, Brett Kennedy, is probably going to be starting at close defense. Last year’s starter, Jared Fernandez, has transferred from the program to arch-rival Johns Hopkins. Fernandez is small in stature, but leaves a huge hole in the defensive midfield. He was a monster on ground balls, especially on face-offs, and was great in coverage against opposing midfielders.

So, who will step up to fill the void? The leading candidate appears to be redshirt freshman Landon Clary. A two-time All-American in high school, Clary saw the field in four games last year. He was one of only three true freshman to appear in a game in 2020.

Another name to keep an eye on is true freshman Tommy Drago. Like Clary, he was also a two-time HS All-American, and will be looking to fight for playing time early in his collegiate career.

The other thing to watch out for with LSM is if any of the transfers (Wykoff, Hapney, Horan) could factor into the playing time. They’re all listed as close defenders on the official roster, but with the departure of Fernandez and no experienced collegiate-level LSM ready to step right in, all options will seemingly be in play.

Short-Stick Defensive Midfield

While the long-stick portion of the midfield is lacking in experience, the short-stick midfield brings the most experience on the entire defense.

It all begins with redshirt senior Peter Dearth. The importance of his return to this team and this unit cannot be understated. An absolute behemoth at 6-foot-3 and 214 pounds, Dearth brings some of everything to the table: physicality, lacrosse IQ, selflessness, experience, and leadership.

Over the course of his career, he has fully embraced the transition to SSDM from the offensive end when the team needed him to do it. And it’s worked out pretty well for him to the tune of two All-American selections. Simply put, Dearth is arguably the best SSDM in the entire country.

Oh, and also there’s this: this year he became the first three-time captain in the history of Syracuse lacrosse. How’s that for leadership?

Dearth may grab the headlines for this unit, but he’s far from the only reason for optimism when it comes to the short-sticks. Depth is another characteristic to define this group. He’s joined by redshirt sophomore Dami Oladunmoye, redshirt freshman Brandon Aviles, redshirt junior Brett Barlow, redshirt senior Spencer Small, and redshirt junior Jonathan Partamian.

Oladunmoye, with multiple seasons contributing as a shortie, will probably be the other starter opposite Dearth. Aviles and Barlow will probably slot in as the primary backups, and will see plenty of playing time on defensive shifts when the starters are getting a rest.

Last year, Aviles got more playing time than any true freshman on the roster. He played in all five games, and even earned himself freshman All-American honors from College Crosse.

Defense Overview

There are undoubtedly good pieces to the defensive puzzle for SU. Dearth, Kennedy, and goalie Drake Porter (who we’ll be talking about in the next piece) are all multi-time All-Americans and among the best at their positions in the country.

For me, however, the key to success for this defense will come down the chemistry and communication of the group as a whole. A defense is only a good as its weakest link.

In a season when the Orange will be facing some of the greatest offensive units in college lacrosse history, communication and good defensive positioning are going to be absolutely paramount for every defense.

The good news is that the close defense of Kennedy, DiPietro, and Murphy had their trial run as a group in 2020 to hopefully set them up for success this season. The experience of the returning short-sticks is also a plus, although questions loom at long-stick for now.

Probably the best news for this defense is the return of Porter, however. His presence in net will be key, not just because he’s one of the best goalies in the country, but because his experience in net will be huge for the...say it with me...communication of the defense. The goalie is the one seeing the whole field and calling out assignments, and having Porter back is a huge boost in that regard.

Offenses will run the show for college lacrosse in 2021. There’s never been more talent across the board in the history of the sport thanks to last year’s seniors (mostly) returning, and if there are a few defenses that can stand out in doing their jobs, they may put their teams over the top.

Can SU be one of those defenses? With the talent they have, they certainly can be IF they can put it all together.

As we count down to the start of the season, we’ll be talking more about defense in the next piece when we take a look at two more areas of strength for the Orange: the face-off specialists and the goalies.