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Syracuse 2021 spring football preview: Offensive line

After a less than stellar campaign, the Orange are looking to turn it around in the trenches

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NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Since we have no idea when the Syracuse Orange will be ramping up their spring practice schedule, we’re going to keep trucking through these previews.

At this point, we previewed the quarterback position, the wide receivers and tight ends, and the running backs, though that article may have changed a little in hindsight with the news Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard are returning. This week, we turn our attention to the trenches and preview the offensive line.

Can the offensive line rewrite the script on what happened in 2020?

Who’s gone?

The lone departure from the offensive line this year is Qadir White, who entered the transfer portal this offseason, after three years of injury and not being able to break into the depth chart. White was injured through all of last year’s campaign.

Technically, while not leaving the program by any stretch, all-utility MVP Chris Elmore will be absolved of his duties at guard, provided everything else works out, and can return to his native fullback/tight end role.

Also of note, Mike Cavanaugh, the offensive line coach from 2018-2020, left the Orange sidelines for a gig with the Arizona State Sun Devils. Cavanaugh saw a mix of results over the years with Syracuse and left after a disastrous year in 2020, resulting in the Orange being ranked the second worst ACC offensive line, ahead of only Georgia Tech, by Pro Football Focus.

Who’s on campus?

Everyone that isn’t a freshman!

All five starters from last season’s line return to Syracuse, and the depth behind them comes back in a healthier manner than they left at the end of the season. The fourteen returners would chart out in something similar to the following:

  • Left tackle: Matthew Bergeron (So.) | Mark Petry (So.) | Will Froumy (RSo.)
  • Left guard: Dakota Davis (RJr.) | Darius Tisdale (RJr.)
  • Center: Carlos Vettorello (RSo.) | Josh Ilaoa (Fr.) | Ryan Kisselstein (RSo.)
  • Right guard: Chris Bleich (RSo.) | Patrick Davis (RSr.) | Josh Kosciol (RFr.)
  • Right tackle: Airon Servias (RSr.) | Anthony Red (RFr.) | Garth Barclay (RFr.)

With everyone back and assumedly healthy, Elmore moves out of the starting guard spot and returns from whence he came, slotting in Chris Bleich, who has spent his year sitting out after transferring from Florida and not receiving a waiver. He played right guard in his time in Gainesville, so the assumption is slotting him in on that side, with Dakota Davis, who has played both guard positions over his time in Orange, over to the left side. This one’s pretty fluid as to who ends up where and will be a chemistry call for either of the two.

Airon Servais and Patrick Davis return as seniors, or in the case of Servais, a super-super senior, taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted for the question mark that was the 2020 season. Servais is coming off a year he may like to forget, and Davis is coming off an almost season-long injury suffered after the season opener against UNC. The pair should provide a veteran voice to an experienced but young group.

The Orange also welcome the addition of walk-on Ahmad Massoud, a guard from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Not much detail out there on Massoud, but he was originally part of the 2020 recruiting class, and has enrolled for the spring semester.

Syracuse v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Who’s arriving this summer?

With a solid shipment of recruits coming in, the Orange are getting a glut of bodies on the offensive line. Six new additions will be joining the big men in the fall, five true freshmen and Iowa Central Community College transfer tackle Jakob Bradford.

Syracuse beat out a Virginia Tech offer to land Bradford and he should add some serious depth to the roster. At 6-foot-4.5 and 300 pounds, he comes in game-ready to play and contribute.

Also joining is four star tackle Enrique Cruz, from the Chicago area in Villa Park, Illinois. A big body at 6-foot-5 and around 250lbs, he could possibly bulk up a bit before he gets to New York. As the 24th ranked tackle in the class and the third highest rated offensive lineman that Syracuse has ever recruited, it’s a good grab to get Cruz on campus.

Kalan Ellis and Austyn Kauhi are starting up a little bit of a Hawaii pipeline for Dino Babers, bringing in a pair of linemen from his old stomping grounds. The move from Hawaii to Syracuse makes it much better for them that they’re not enrolling in February.

Wes Hoeh and Tyler Magnuson round out the class. Both look to be talented additions on film, and join the rest of the class on the redshirt and get a bit of size and experience to slot into the squad moving forward.

What does the hiring of Mike Schmidt do for this unit?

The unit needed an overhaul. Whether it’s talent, technique, scheme, bad injury luck, all can be debated, but there was a need to refresh what was happening these last two years on the offensive line. Former coach Mike Cavanaugh had a solid year his first in Orange, with two members of the 2018 squad getting roster spots in the NFL, after the impressive ten win campaign.

Schmidt comes to Central New York after eight years of coaching one of the consistently standout G5 offensive lines in the country. Since the days of Marshall Faulk to Rashaad Penny, San Diego State has been a running machine, no matter the head coach. Putting a run first emphasis on the blocking scheme should actually fit Babers’ system well, as it is so handoff and RPO/play-action heavy.

If he can coach up a bit of the raw talent that is on the roster, this could be a home run hire (pun fully intended). Only time will tell on that.

With a revamped interior line, can Schmidt turn this into a running team?

The return of a healthy Dakota Davis and the eligibility of Chris Bleich change the look of this team. Having both guard spots be a potential weakpoint, either through lack of experience with Rhino or playing the backups with Darius Tisdale last year, put this unit in a conundrum.

Much of Dino’s offense and Cavanaugh’s blocking scheme were predicated on quick traps from the guards and mobility on double teams. The speed of a bucket step into a pull from player to player can change the efficacy of an entire run play. The ability of a guard and tackle or guard and center to work a double team and get to the second level is the difference between a three yard run and a six yard run.

I haven’t watched a ton of SDSU film, but one thing of note was the presence of some “power zone” runs in the scheme. The use of the fullback to put a hat on a linebacker in the desired hole, and the running back being able to read that block instead of commit early is a concept I can get behind, especially with Chris Elmore back at fullback, and Schmidt has embraced it.

The starting five from last season had a high end pass block rating of 55.9 per and that was Chris Elmore. The low end of that scale was Airon Servais at 50.3. The Mendoza line for a “successful” play is 60.0, so this will be an uphill battle for Schmidt.

With a healthy unit, will Tommy DeVito still be running for his life next year?

For all intents and purposes, the Syracuse Orange were down to eight total offensive linemen at one point last year. That’s with a converted fullback playing guard. I waxed poetic during the season as to how drastic an impact that has on the rest of the team, (defense, scout team, etc), but it also wears down the healthy bodies that you do have.

That said, some pass blocking grades from the line last year:

  • Davis - 63.7 (117 snaps)
  • Bergeron - 61.8 (411)
  • Elmore - 59.7 (325)
  • Tisdale - 57.1 (364)
  • Vettorello - 48.6 (414)
  • Servais - 43.6 (414)

Most of those are not good numbers, two of those are flat out bad. No matter what, the Orange need to revamp their protection and work on communication in the offseason. Servais and Vettorello both looked like turnstiles at numerous points on the year, and in pass protection, that’s not a great look. I think all of these numbers can improve with an offseason of work, especially with all members returning, some incoming transfer talent and ideally the potential to grab another transfer to push the envelope more and compete against the starters.

All that said, with the return of the unit and a full offseason, I’m not going to say Tommy won’t be flushed at all, but I would hope that he’s going to have a little more time to think.