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Syracuse football 2021 position preview: Defensive line

This is potentially the most experienced group in SU history - what will that ultimately mean for the Orange?

Pittsburgh v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange football team is just over a month away from kicking off the 2021 season, if you can believe it. Though it certainly feels like we’ve been previewing the upcoming campaign for months (because we have), we can finally say we’re in the home stretch now.

If you’ve missed out on our 2021 position previews to this point, start backtracking with last week’s offensive line deep dive. This week, however, were looking at the:

Defensive Line

Transitioning to a 3-3-5 scheme last year altered the demand on a veteran defensive to be more focused on run-stopping and staying at home than aggressive blitzing as they’d done in both 2018 and 2019 under Brian Ward. Given the complete change in approach, the line could’ve imploded last year between the scheme adjustment and COVID challenges, plus injuries that wreaked havoc throughout the rest of this defense. And yet... things held up well enough.

Now, I wouldn’t rave about last year’s results either. For an extremely experienced group, run-stopping still wasn’t up to snuff most of the time (allowed nearly 4.6 yards per carry). Yet the team was still top 30 in tackles for loss with 70, and you can at least explain away some of the hot and cold play with a shortened offseason and new scheme. However, those excuses do vanish here in 2021, with another year to implement the switch and four seniors leading this group.

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Defensive Ends

Josh Black, (Redshirt) Senior

Black’s been a fixture within this Syracuse defense for a very long time, and now gets one last go-around mostly playing defensive end for the Orange. Despite some struggles for the line overall last year, he was still reasonably effective with four TFLs (two sacks) while being one of the glue guys keeping this team together amid a difficult season. If Syracuse’s run defense shows marked improvement in 2021, he’s at least part of that solution.

Kingsley Jonathan, Senior

No, the 3-3-5 doesn’t necessarily put a premium on pass-rushing from the line, but Jonathan would be the most likely source of that should it arrive. He had 5.5 TFLs (three sacks) last year, and has consistently been one of SU’s most athletic edge rushers over the course of his career. Personally, I’m intrigued by what he can do following a full offseason adjusting to the new scheme.

Cody Roscoe, Senior

In year one at Syracuse, Roscoe managed to establish himself as a disruptive force up front with six TFLs, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. And like most of the players in this defense, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with an offseason under his belt and more time to process the scheme. One thing that seemed to work well last year was the rotation on the defensive line, though, and Roscoe’s addition was a major part of that.

Caleb Okechukwu, (Redshirt) Sophomore

While we’ve seen Jonathan’s athleticism on display quite a bit over the years, Okechukwu hasn’t necessarily gotten that shot just yet. He did appear in all 11 games last year and recorded a sack during that time. But if we really want to see more of him this year, it could require either Black or Roscoe playing some more inside in relief of McKinley Williams — thus opening the door for Okechukwu to get valuable snaps on the edge and prep to become a full-time starter in 2022.

Drew Tuazama, (Redshirt) Freshman

Tuazama is the team’s tallest returning defensive lineman at 6-foot-5, and we’ve seen what his size can do in spurts. Last year, he had two TFLs and a punt block in just six games. He looked explosive in short stints in 2019, too. Syracuse obviously has a talent here. It’s just uncertain how much he’ll be able to see the field before the depth chart opens up significantly next season.

Latarie Kinsler, Freshman

At 223 pounds, Kinsler is probably a little undersized right now to get real snaps at defensive end, but after not appearing at all in 2020, it would be great to find a way to start developing him somewhere in this defense. Maybe that winds up being an outside linebacker spot, despite the crowd of young players back there too.

Jatius Geer, Freshman

The reason for the qualifier about “returning” linemen above on Tuazama is the fact that Geer’s new but also 6-foot-6. Combined with his 255 pounds, he already has the size to be able to contribute on the line if there’s room on this year’s depth chart. There may not be, admittedly. But the more he can see the field and gain some valuable experience in 2021, the more likely it is he’s a key contributor after this year.

Chase Simmons, Freshman

Size-wise, Simmons isn’t too far behind Geer and has the high school production to excite fans, with 13 TFLs and nine sacks at North Myrtle Beach High School. Similar to Geer, he’ll run into the same depth chart issues early on. Syracuse could use the redshirt rules to their advantage here, even if just on special teams duty.

Patrick Alberga, Freshman

Alberga’s a walk-on, so his chances will be limited at best here, especially early on. He didn’t appear last season, so while special teams could be a stretch goal, it’s more likely he redshirts this year at least.

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Defensive Tackles

McKinley Williams, (Redshirt) Senior

Bear needs no introduction as the team’s top run-stopper and one could argue he may be the team’s best linemen overall. Last year, he tallied eight TFLs to lead the team and we’ll need more of the same to do a better job plugging the middle of this defense. Williams and Roscoe were Syracuse’s two best linemen against the run last year according to PFF, but that effectiveness still only graded out around a 68 out of 100. Another offseason in the scheme will help there for this veteran group, McKinley included.

Curtis Harper, (Redshirt) Junior

Harper’s opportunities to contribute have increased over time, but he still hasn’t gotten a ton of chances to play consistently. It’s going to be tough for him to break through a ton, but he’s managed 3.5 tackles for loss over the last couple years despite limited snaps. There’s talent here to develop still.

Joe Rondi, (Redshirt) Freshman

We haven’t seen much of Rondi yet, especially after he was dealing with an injury last year. Having just one tackle spot makes it difficult to break through, but special teams could potentially offer some avenues for him to see the field in the meantime. It would be great to see him in action as we both aim for success this year while building for the future.

Terry Lockett, Freshman

Lockett just arrived i January, so he’ll have a bit of a leg up on the competition in terms of learning the scheme. Still, despite his talent and potential readiness to contribute, it’s not the worst year for a redshirt before he competes for real playing time in 2022. The redshirt rules let him still see the field a bit in the meantime, too, without burning eligibility.

Elijah Fuentes-Cundiff, Freshman

Similarly to Lockett, Fuentes-Cundiff has the size to contribute right away (6-foot-3, 270 pounds, but without the advantage of getting on campus early. There’s plenty of upside here, but like a lot of the younger guys this year, redshirts and/or special teams work may be all that’s available in 2021.

Kevon Darton, (Redshirt) Freshman

Despite being a walk-on, Darton jumped in a bit last season. But with a lot of new scholarship defensive linemen, it’s uncertain if he’ll get chances to get as involved this year. Still, special teams could be an option for him.

Elijah “Bubba” Wright, Freshman

Wright is also a walk-on, though he didn’t appear at all in his first year on campus. The local addition is unlikely to work his way into the rotation this year, so very well could redshirt while using his size (6-foot-3, 278 pounds) to make some valuable contributions in practice.

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As mentioned above numerous times, this line is extremely experienced — which is great if they put together a solid season up front and in particular, slow down opposing running backs. If the line isn’t making enough stops, though, then the veterans up top potentially start to serve as a logjam preventing younger players from getting valuable snaps before taking the reins next season.

I’m willing to bet this line does get better with another year transitioning to the 3-3-5, and you do see some clear improvement stopping the run. That doesn’t mean you see the big TFL and sack numbers we got used to for a couple seasons, since getting behind the line of scrimmage is less of an emphasis. But I’d take allowing fewer than 4.5 yards per carry — despite the fact that it’s only happened twice since 2014 (2018 and 2014).