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Syracuse 2021 spring football preview: Defensive line

The Orange line cashes in on an extra year of eligibility.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

We finally know when spring football starts for the Syracuse Orange! According to John Wildhack, things get rolling in just two weeks, on March 30. Since we’re already halfway through these position previews, though, we’re just going to keep powering through so they’re all done shortly after practice begins.

Last time out, we previewed the slightly revamped Orange coaching staff and the pressure they’re under to deliver a winning season after two straight years without a bowl trip. Now we turn the page to the defense, starting with the very experienced line. If you missed the articles around the offense, check out Steve’s look at the offensive line, and my quarterback, running back and wide receiver/tight end position group preview as well. Next up:

Can the defensive line take steps forward without really adjusting personnel?

Who’s gone?

Perhaps more players than we thought would be... or at least, not the same guys we thought would be departing initially. Over the offseason, we’ve seen D-line transfers from Kevin Lemieux, Cooper Dawson, Zach Morton and Jason Muñoz. That doesn’t necessarily impact the two-deep at all, but it does remove some of the younger players who could’ve been part of long-term plans.

Who’s on campus?

Quite a few players, actually. Most importantly, McKinley Williams, Josh Black and Kingsley Jonathan all return for Syracuse, and should be the starters once again in the 3-3-5 scheme. We don’t know if Cody Roscoe is back yet, but if he is, there’s another very experienced player to add to the rotation on this line.

Beyond that core group, there are still a handful of other guys on campus... which could potentially explain why there were so many transfers this offseason. Since everyone but the 2021 signees were added before the team switched to a three-man front, that creates a bit of a logjam — exacerbated (in a good way for the team right now) by the extra year of eligibility for last year’s seniors.

At the tackle spot, returning scholarship players include Curtis Harper and Joe Rondi. On the edges, returning scholarship guys are Caleb Okechukwu, Drew Tuazama and Latarie Kinsler. Walk-ons Patrick Alberga, Elijah Wright and Kevon Darton. Spring enrollee Terry Lockett is also on campus already after signing this past December, and could play tackle.

Who’s arriving this summer?

At least four more players will join the Orange in the summer. Elijah Fuentes comes in as a possible tackle at 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, while Jatius Geer, Derek McDonald and Chase Simmons figure to plug in at the end spots. There’s also a spot held for tackle Jaelin Moss right now, after he didn’t sign during the early signing period or National Signing Day.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

What do we need out of the D-line this year?

There’s been an obvious pass-rushing resurgence for Syracuse over the last few years, but that’s not necessarily driven by the line anymore — which is partly by design given what the 3-3-5 scheme is supposed to do. Last year’s line accounted for just nine of 25 sacks, and McKinley Williams (71.4) and Kingsley Jonathan (69.5) were the only linemen with above-65 pass-rushing grades according to Pro Football Focus. We’ll take what we can get there, but the bigger opportunity and need comes from stopping the run.

Here, the line didn’t necessarily excel either. Jonathan had the highest run-stopping grade among the regulars, with a 73.8. Roscoe scored a 68.1 and Williams had a 68.0. These aren’t terrible ratings, but also showcase how this team allowed 4.56 yards per rush and let four different opponents top 250 yards on the ground. There was improvement there in the second half of the year. But the Orange line was still carved up frequently.

The line’s primary objective is to simply get more reliable on that front and take some stress off the linebackers by doing a better job plugging holes. This veteran group has the ability to do that — but they’ve also been around awhile. It’s potentially debatable how much improvement one can expect in year five or six on campus.

Which young players could emerge from this group?

The lack of perceived opportunities is a reason why you saw four linemen leave this offseason, and with only three starting spots available, it’s not as if there’s going to be a ton of snaps left over for developing players.

Still, Okechukwu and Tuazama have shown flashes of play-making ability when given the chance, and even if they’re not that “young” anymore, getting them snaps should be a priority. An actual young player like Kinsler would seem to be a prime candidate to take on a bigger role, though we’ve yet to see him play.

Tackle is the less straightforward area, without a clear frontrunner for the backup role if Roscoe decides not to return. Harper’s made strides, and we’ve only seen short bursts of Rondi in action so far. Lockett would be a sleeper, assuming he’s able to translate his extra time on campus this spring into a greater understanding of the scheme right away.

Is this the top position group for the Syracuse defense?

Unintentionally setting up a strawman above, but I’d tend to say no. They’re definitely the most experienced, and one that will help take pressure on the younger players elsewhere in the defense. However, I’d call the linebackers the top group right now given their rapid progress last year. This line still has a crucial role to play there in making the linebackers’ jobs simpler, of course. But until the run defense improves, it’s hard to make claims they’re above the other groups. They have a slight edge on the DBs, just because of the number of departures there... but even then, there’s still plenty of upside there due to last year’s glut of injuries and the mere presence of Garrett Williams.

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What’s the long-term impact of extra eligibility for these D-linemen and the switch to a three-man front?

No one’s saying no to three or four senior defensive linemen coming back. The question it creates, though, is what that does for the team in team in terms of keeping and developing talent, plus recruiting going forward.

For valid reasons, Williams, Jonathan and Black are entrenched in their roles, and having just three spots available on the line limits access to playing time. Ideally, you want to be able to give opportunities to your rising depth before they’re actually starters (as was the case for these guys — especially Jonathan). But you can’t risk losing to do so, especially if you’re in the situation this staff’s in right now.

Creating more questions for the position group going forward is if and how the 3-3-5 helps bring in on top talent (“top” relative to what Syracuse can acquire, of course). Without gaudier numbers and a very clear run-stopping role, it’s potentially harder to get elite defensive ends. Tackles, you still have a chance, though it’s classically just a tough position to recruit for.

Next year could mark some growing pains for the line without adding a transfer, and/or a breakout player on the roster or part of the incoming recruiting class. It would be nice to get at least a glimpse of who’s up next before we turn the page to 2022.