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Syracuse football 2021 position preview: Offensive line

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Alright, things can’t get any worse, right?

NCAA Football: Holy Cross at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

While there are plenty of other Syracuse Orange football happenings this week with ACC media days (“ACC Football Kickoff,” officially), we’re still trudging on with position previews in advance of the season’s actual kickoff in less than a month and a half.

If you’ve missed our 2021 position previews to this point, it’s worth backtracking to wide receivers and tight ends first. But if you’re ready to go, this week we’re covering:

Offensive Line

Yes, the offensive line is typically Steve’s domain, but when needed, we can sub his expertise for mine (which is largely steeped in scheduling complaints and play-calling concerns, but humor me).

As you know, Syracuse’s offensive line has been a trainwreck for the past two years, and that’s led to quite a few problems. For one, quarterback injuries (three different players started in 2020). For another, the offense has slowed to a crawl as tempo has been slowed to account for line issues and pressure. After a season in which the Orange allowed nearly 3.5 sacks per game while having very few healthy linemen available — any even playing fullback Chris Elmore at guard for much of the year — what are we expecting to see improve this year? And who’s going to be part of those crucial steps forward?

Centers

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Boston College at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Carlos Vettorello, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Last year’s starting center is back and should be playing center again unless Dino Babers opts to switch him and Airon Servais back again. Obviously the middle of the line was a bit of an issue last year, and he didn’t fare particularly well in terms of run or pass-blocking in 2020 per PFF (graded out under 55 out of 100 for both). But at position that doesn’t have much in the way of depth, he’s probably the best bet — and the one most likely to find improvement, especially with more certainty at guard this fall than last.

Josh Ilaoa, Freshman

Ilaoa is potentially more of a guard, yet with so few options at center, it’s fair to slot him in here with an option to slot in at guard if needed. While snaps were limited on offense, he got plenty of special teams burn in 2020, which could pay dividends as the team continues to try and develop the line depth chart more. His pass-blocking grades were actually among the best on the team (though a 67.3).

Josh Kosciol, (Redshirt) Freshman

As a walk-on, Kosciol’s unlikely to be a main option at center — but again, look at how few centers we really have. The fact that he’s been around for a few years already makes him a valuable contributor; he’s also seen the field twice already, getting snaps vs. both Georgia Tech and Clemson last year.

Guards

Chris Bleich, (Redshirt) Sophomore

One thing that would’ve been a major help for Syracuse last year? Having Bleich eligible to suit up. Now the Florida transfer (started eight games in 2019) will jump into a key role for the Orange trying to stabilize what’s been a trouble spot. At 6-foot-6 and 307 pounds, Bleich certainly has the physical tools to open up holes and keep opposing pass-rushers at bay. It’ll be interesting to see if he improves upon the sort of blocking grades he put up for the Gators (53 for pass blocking, 63 for run blocking).

Dakota Davis, (Redshirt) Junior

In 2019, Davis was second on the team in knockdown blocks with 50, and then missed most of last season — another reason the middle of the line was such a mess. While it would be bold to claim that the rushing attack improved after his return last in the year (they only topped 100 yards once with him back in the lineup), having the experienced starter around all year will be extremely valuable.

Darius Tisdale, (Redshirt) Junior

Tisdale was asked to do quite a bit in 2020, and should be in a better spot to succeed now in 2021 as a likely reserve with starting experience, plus more consistency in front of him on the depth chart. Tisdale’s grades didn’t net out too well, but like the others, it’s worth noting the degree of difficulty given all of the injuries. Now we get to trade that framing for that of experienced depth this year.

Kalan Ellis, Freshman

Though a true freshman, Ellis joins the team as its heaviest player by quite a few pounds (at 350, he’s 27 above Dakota Davis on the current roster). That size should put the Hawaii product in prime position to be appear on the early depth chart, especially since there aren’t a ton of interior linemen on this team. With luck, though, he’s redshirting and gaining valuable experience to be more in the mix next year.

Ryan Kisselstein, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Another massive human, KIsselstein is one of the tallest players on the team at 6-foot-6, and the local walk-on can jump in if called upon. Again, hopefully injuries are such this year that we don’t need him much beyond special teams duty.

Tackles

Syracuse v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Matthew Bergeron, Sophomore

Bergeron’s started at tackle on both sides of the line for Syracuse, and has performed well in spots despite being thrust into action pretty early in his career (again, thanks, injuries). He’s also been getting burn on the special teams unit, so he’s bringing more experience than one might think. Barring something unforeseen, Bergeron should be the Orange’s starting left tackle.

Airon Servais, (Redshirt) Senior

Injuries and position changes have checkered Servais’s time at SU, but if he’s healthy, he’s one of the country’s most experienced linemen and should plug in at right tackle next to Bleich. Between the possible stabilizing force of Bleich and the private coaching Servais has been seeking this offseason, it stands to reason things will look better than last year. If nothing else, he’s clearly a solid locker room guy and provides some glue for this offensive line.

Jakob Bradford, Sophomore

JUCO offensive linemen can be great additions, and thankfully, we may not need Bradford to jump right in to contribute right away. That said, without a ton of experienced depth beyond the top two names at tackle, it seems very possible that the former Iowa Central CC player sees himself on the two-deep. He was all-conference for the team back in 2019 (they didn’t play last year).

Anthony Red, (Redshirt) Freshman

Red has some versatility and could shift inside to guard, but we’ve only seen three snaps from him so far in his first couple seasons. Injuries have been part of what’s prevented extensive looks to-date. One would think that without those “owies” (to use a Babers-ism), the redshirt freshman could’ve gotten some time later in the season. Now, he’ll get to compete for a backup tackle spot, with an ability to push for more.

Mark Petry, Sophomore

Another likely name in the two-deep conversation is Petry. A former JUCO player himself, the German standout was a special teams fixture last fall and that experience should give him a leg up to be ready to contribute more. While there’s a ton of snaps at tackle, there’s also uncertainty about how valuable those really are, so Petry’s on the short list of guys to get a shot if the wheels come off.

Garth Barclay, Freshman

Barclay is one of two players on the team to stand at 6-foot-7, and as a result, can manage to pull off what looks like a relatively “lanky” 284 pounds. He had some limited opportunities to play last year, and you can figure him in for some more this year.

Wil Froumy, (Redshirt) Sophomore

One would think that Froumy’s chance to move up the depth chart is sort of now or never. This is now his fourth year on campus, and he’s yet to see the field. Following a redshirt in 2018, he didn’t appear in 2019 and was injured last year. Hopefully he can at least see some run with special teams to start getting into the mix.

Enrique Cruz, Freshman

Cruz was one of the top additions for Syracuse in the most recent recruiting class, a four-star talent that may need a year or two to jump in. That’s fine for this year with experience ahead of him. He’s an intriguing player down the road, though, since he’s already 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds before even getting onto campus.

Austyn Kauhi, Freshman

Similarly impressive size-wise is Kauhi, who’s at 6-foot-5 and 285 pounds. He’s quick, athletic and was one of the best offensive linemen to come out of Hawaii in the 2021 recruiting cycle. Like the other tackles in this group, he has a little time to develop, which is appreciated.

Wes Hoeh, Freshman

Hoeh’s a very physical player, with some additional credentials given the fact that he both wrestled and played rugby in high school. He may not have the same size as a lot of these other freshmen, but there’s a chance his other skills keep him in the future conversation just the same.

Ahmad Masood, Freshman

Syracuse recently added Masood as a walk-on, and in year one, the 241-pounder will be learning the offense, bulking up and just getting a better feel for campus life. It’s good that SU has a walk-on in each group within the offensive line position, as a potential developmental project.

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

The lack of interior line emphasis for recent classes remains puzzling when you look at just how many guys are best fits at tackle and the dire straits this team gets tossed into with one injury at center or guard. I mean, Elmore had to play guard last year, and managed to do a halfway decent job of it too. But that’s not the sort of thing that should really ever happen to a Power Five program.

There were consequences for last year’s struggles, and Mike Cavanaugh was swapped out (he left for Arizona State) for San Diego State’s Mike Schmidt to spur some immediate improvement. Schmidt’s emphasis on the run game at SDSU could be a godsend for a team that’s likely leaning on the ground game. More than perhaps any other position group, this one dictates whether this team and staff sinks or swims in 2021.

Realistically, improvement is likely by default (it’s tough to really regress from what we saw for large swathes of 2020). But how much we see a move toward something closer to 2018’s line — doesn’t even have to be that good, just serviceable — could wind up being as “simple” as health, continuity, Bleich’s add and a coaching change.