At this point, unless you’ve been living under a rock or have no cares for Syracuse Orange football, you probably understand the fact that the 2019 and 2020 iterations of the offensive line weren’t spectacular by any stretch. The last unit that would be classified as good would be the 2018 iteration of the line, that paved the way to a 10-3 record and a Camping World Bowl victory.
With several years’ distance now, I think it’s time to look at what worked for that unit — what hasn’t for these recent ones, and maybe which of those directions that this upcoming 2021 unit leans in.
In 2018, the Orange were coming off a 4-8 campaign again, albeit one with a huge victory over Clemson, and looking to build on that success. The offensive line returned four starters, including standout senior left tackle Cody Conway, redshirt sophomore Airon Servais at center, redshirt junior Evan Adams and redshirt senior Aaron Roberts, who was returning from injury. They also returned Sam Heckel, who had started the previous year for Roberts at the left guard spot.
SU presented as a unit returning a ton of experience, and plugged the last gap with graduate transfer Koda Martin, a former starter for Texas A&M at right tackle. The experience and the top-tier transfer led to a unit that worked well together and was probably one of the better in the league on the season. The win-loss record, rushing success and lack of sacks relative to other recent years all support that as well.
Fast forward a year to 2019, and they instead replaced three starters, both tackles, and Roberts, a guard, from a very solid group of players. Sam Heckel got injured, Servais bounced around the line, transfer tackle Ryan Alexander doesn’t pan out nearly as well and the only bright spot is the emergence of Matthew Bergeron.
The next season brings more of the same, with injuries forcing a fullback to play guard for the Orange and Chris Bleich not receiving his waiver. We’ve played this story out enough.
Come 2021, though, the tables may have turned a bit.
Syracuse returns all five starters from a rough 2020, but no matter how you spin it, those players gained experience. The core of Bergeron, Davis, Vettorello, Tisdale and Servais that finished last year return a large number of starts between them, and the unit is adding two transfers Willie Tyler (Texas), Jacob Bradford (ICCC) and gaining eligibility of Bleich who was a transfer from Florida last season. The Orange are also carrying 20 offensive linemen on the roster — that’s the most since the 2018 roster included 17, creating depth that hasn’t been seen in Orange for a long time.
Two things that happened on that 2018 squad that need to occur for the 2021 iteration are improving pass protection and staying healthy. The 2018 unit had all five starters play in all 13 games. The ability to keep that core together was paramount to the success of the group. That definitely hasn’t been the case these past two seasons and needs to be rectified this year.
With Conway and Martin at the tackles, the Orange had two All-ACC caliber men on the outside. While that’s not a necessity for the 2021 version, Bergeron should keep improving. Whoever ends up manning the right tackle spot will need to be less of a turnstile than Servais was in the 2020 season. Whether he plays there, or moves back inside, he needs to play at a different level than we saw the last two years.
On the inside, the 2018 returned four starters for three spots, including two high caliber guards, which in turn helps out the center. Syracuse will need to do something to help shore up the front of a collapsing pocket that showed up in the 2020 season. Vettorello and the hodge-podge guard situation would engage fine at the line of scrimmage, but would give up ground too easy and the pocket would be pushed back a few feet from where it ideally should be. The return of two guards, one with SEC experience (Bleich), one with starting experience on this unit (Davis) should help bolster the front, whether Vettorello is kept at center or moved back out to tackle where he started his career.
One more wildcard on the 2021 season is the addition of Mike Schmidt as the new offensive line coach from San Diego State.
Schmidt being a run-game aficionado and great developer of talent in his time on the west coast, can only help this unit, which struggled mightily in the run game, bailed out last season by the vision of an emerging Sean Tucker. Schmidt’s scheme changes and coaching should help to push the run game ahead of where it was last year, and with a sophomore Tucker, as well as Jarveon Howard and Abdul Adams returning, the run game may be more prominent than the Orange have shown in the past.
All this isn’t to say that the line will magically be a strength, there’s a long way for that to go, but that the pieces are in place for that to happen and that there’s reason to think it improves. The experience returning and the depth both should play a key role in pushing the unit forward and if the line improves, it makes everyone else look better.
Starting Syracuse Offensive Line
|2022 (P)||Matthew Bergeron||Kalan Ellis||Carlos Vettorello||Chris Bleich||Dakota Davis||?|
|2021h||Matthew Bergeron||Chris Bleich||Airon Servais||Dakota Davis||Darius Tisdale||0-1|
|2021g||Matthew Bergeron||Josh Ilaoa||Airon Servais||Dakota Davis||Darius Tisdale||0-1|
|2021f||Matthew Bergeron||Kalan Ellis||Airon Servais||Dakota Davis||Darius Tisdale||0-1|
|2021e||Matthew Bergeron||Kalan Ellis||Airon Servais||Chris Bleich||Dakota Davis||1-0|
|2021d||Matthew Bergeron||Kalan Ellis||Airon Servais||Dakota Davis||Carlos Vettorello||1-2|
|2021c||Matthew Bergeron||Chris Bleich||Airon Servais||Dakota Davis||Carlos Vettorello||1-1|
|2021b||Matthew Bergeron||Chris Bleich||Airon Servais||Darius Tisdale||Carlos Vettorello||1-0|
|2021a||Matthew Bergeron||Chris Bleich||Carlos Vettorello||Darius Tisdale||Airon Servais||1-1|