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Syracuse 2021 spring football preview: Linebackers

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Welcome to spring ball!

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Syracuse at Pitt Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After taking a week off for another unexpected March Madness run, we’re back with Syracuse Orange football spring previews to distract you from the less-than-positive things now going on with SU men’s and women’s hoops. You’re welcome!

Spring practice actually started this week for Syracuse football, and since we started these positional overviews weeks ago, we’re already nearly done with them. So if you’ve been following along, you should already know most of the players getting a spotlight in some of these early spring interviews.

Last time out, we previewed the defensive line, which returns a lot of experience thanks to NCAA rulings around extra eligibility. For this week, we’re looking at what may be the heart of the defense — the linebackers — after a lot of young players were thrust into action last year. If you missed any of the previous pieces, check out previews for the coaching staff, offensive line, quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers/tight ends. Next up:

Will linebackers take another leap forward in 2021?

Who’s gone?

Potentially no one from a scholarship player, unless Lee Kpogba isn’t rejoining the team (we’ll get there). Walk-on Tyler Cook did depart, however, catching on with Fordham.

Who’s on campus?

Everyone else, thankfully!

That list includes two of SU’s top five tacklers — Mikel Jones, Geoff Cantin-Arku — and the player (Stefon Thompson) that was second on the team in tackles for loss last year. There’s also Marlowe Wax, Tyrell Richards, Steve Linton, Leon Lowery, Ishmael Goulbourne and Anwar Sparrow, in terms of scholarship players.

Additionally, walk-ons Ryan Dolan and Abrahim Kenneh are also back.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Three more young linebackers to add to the existing collection of young players in this position group. Derek McDonald’s the biggest of those options at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. Malik Matthew is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, while Austin Roon’s 6-foot-3 and 215. As has been clear since last year’s recruiting class, Dino Babers is definitely looking for bigger player at linebacker than what we saw from previous additions.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

What about Lee Kpogba?

Kpogba was suspended indefinitely from the team earlier this year, but he’s still in the student directory and Babers hasn’t said he won’t come back. Provided the issue wasn’t too severe in nature, it would be great to have Kpogba back in the fold as part of Syracuse’s promising young linebacker corps.

Last year, despite not starting a game, he still collected 43 tackles (seventh on the team), two TFLs (one sack) and was a standout on special teams in every contest. He also had the best tackling grade on the team, with an 89.7 according to Pro Football Focus.

The 2020 linebacker group seemed to thrive at times because they had a good rotation of fresh legs in there, and were able to deploy players situationally. Kpogba’s a big part of their ability to keep that success going.

Is this the strength of the defense?

Yes. A year after the linebackers looked like the defense’s most glaring weakness and the most inexperienced position group on the team, they’re suddenly the heart of this 3-3-5 scheme that’s been able to help make up for shortcomings elsewhere.

This system calls for a lot of play-making from linebackers against both the run and pass, and these players delivered despite so few snaps heading into 2020. Linebackers accounted for about 38% of the Orange’s TFLs and Jones led the team in interceptions with four. According to PFF, four of the top eight pass-rushers on the team were linebackers, as were two of the top three run defenders on the squad.

If we see some progress from the defensive line just getting a better push against the run, that should free up the linebackers to create more plays, and make them a more dynamic group in both run stopping and blitz schemes. Since we don’t know what the secondary will look like just yet with a good deal of turnover, there’s some additional pressure on these players to carry more of the weight in coverage, too — at least early on.

Where does this group need to show improvement?

Where the team could do a little bit more is turning pressure into sacks. Syracuse’s 25 sacks were decent last year, but there was a clear step back in terms of pass-rushing. If the system is calling for the line to apply more run-stopping, then that puts more emphasis on the linebackers to get hits on opposing quarterbacks. The linebackers had 16 QB hurries last year and 12 sacks. Seeing that number cilmb a bit would help the secondary come along significantly (plus just make their job easier, since we saw them exposed at times last year without as much pressure applied on throws).

Run-stopping is not as big of a focus for this group, but it is a place where Syracuse needs help in general. Syracuse allowed 4.5 yards per carry or more in five different games last year (and five yards or more in four of those), which is far from ideal — though notably, most of the worst performances were earlier in the season.

Can Tyrell Richards finally cash in on all of that potential?

Interestingly, last year’s better-than-expected performance from the linebackers didn’t rely as heavily on the most experienced linebacker on the team going into last year: Tyrell Richards. Long seen as a freak athlete and great playmaker, we’ve still yet to see a consistent and/or healthy season from Richards to cash in on all of that potential.

Last year, he only played in eight games, yet had 24 tackles, 3.5 TFLs (two sacks) and a blocked kick. PFF also graded him out as one of the team’s top run defenders (77.7) AND tacklers (87.0). The key to this linebacker group being able to make even more strides forward and become a really disruptive force could be Richards breaking out. Fingers crossed we hear more about how he’s performing in spring ball, and the potential for a big fall.