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Syracuse football: Defensive & special teams depth chart projections for 2021

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Okay, now the parts of the team we’re a little more sure of.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Whether you feel mentally and emotionally prepared for it or not, the 2021 Syracuse Orange football season kicks off in a little over a week. And though we’ve received some choice glimpses of the team this offseason, we still have very little to go off of when it comes to which Orange players we’ll actually see on the field when things get started against Ohio on September 4.

Sure, we can fully admit that Dino Babers is not prone to releasing a depth chart unless he has to (see: this entire offseason). And even when he does give us one, it’s usually debatable how much he sticks to it. Still, this is a blog, and the content machine never rests.

On Wednesday, we made our picks on the offensive side of the ball. Today? Defense and special teams.

Defensive end: Kingsley Jonathan (Sr) | Caleb Okechukwu (RSo)

Nose tackle: McKinley Williams (RSr) | Curtis Harper (RJr)

Defensive end: Josh Black (RSr) | Cody Roscoe (RSr)

As discussed on the podcast this week, the defensive line wasn’t bad last year, but also left something to be desired (especially against the run) when considering the amount of experience this group had. All of those key players are back too, making this among the most veteran-laden lines in the conference. With luck, that means we see them round into form a little bit more as they adjust to the 3-3-5 scheme. Jonathan, Wiliams, Black and Roscoe are all going to see plenty of snaps. That’s a good thing, though SU’s staff will also need to balance that with getting reps for younger guys too, since all four of those seniors are gone next year.

Also receiving votes: Joe Rondi (RFr)

Strongside linebacker: Stefon Thompson (Fr) | Leon Lowery (Fr)

Middle linebacker: Geoff Cantin-Arku (So) | Marlowe Wax (Fr)

Weakside linebacker: Mikel Jones (So) | Steve Linton (RFr)

Last year’s group was very green and that may have helped them adapt to the new system a bit quicker. Jones and Thompson already appear very comfortable in their respective roles, and Cantin-Arku looked solid as well as the season wore on. This is a high-upside group, but also one that still has some fleeting experienced depth. Wax played plenty as a true frosh last year. But beyond that, Lowery and Linton don’t have many snaps between them, and the rest of the depth chart’s basically new guys. So while we’re excited to see how they continue to develop, SU’s linebackers may also be walking a tightrope completely reliant on everyone staying healthy.

Also receiving votes: N/A

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

Cornerback: Garrett Williams (RFr) | Neil Nunn (RFr)

Cornerback: Duce Chestnut (Fr) | Chase Atkinson (RFr)

Strong safety: Aman Greenwood (RFr) | Ben Labrosse (Fr)

Free safety: Ja’Had Carter (Fr) | Jason Simmons (So)

Rover: Eric Coley (RJr) | Rob Hanna (Fr)

Now we get to see if last year’s injury issues wind up doing Syracuse a favor on the other side. With so many players banged-up in the secondary last year, the Orange plugged in a ton of youth and gave those first- and second-year guys snaps they wouldn’t normally get. So now SU brings back a very young, but experienced group of DBs, plus Coley returning from injury, top recruit Duce Chestnut (getting first-team reps in camp), and New Mexico State transfer Jason Simmons (also seemingly in the mix for early playing time, starting role or otherwise).

This group had to learn a lot of things on the fly last year, and amid a pandemic no less. With a year under their belts, you’ll see improved and more disciplined safety play without necessarily compromising play-making. Garrett Williams could be an all-conference standout, and really, this is one of the only position groups on the team that you feel pretty solid about the entire two-deep.

Also receiving votes: Adrian Cole (RFr)

Place kicker: Andre Szmyt (RJr) | James Williams (Fr)

Kickoffs: Andre Szmyt (RJr) | Colby Barker (RSr)

Punter: James Williams (Fr) | Colby Barker (RSr)

Kick returner: Trebor Pena (Fr) | Ja’Had Carter (Fr)

Punt returner: Trebor Pena (Fr) | Ja’Vontae Williams (Fr)

Long snapper: Aaron Bolinsky (Jr) | Joey Kelly (RFr)

No real surprises here, though it’ll be interesting to see if anything fundamental changes about this group with Justin Lustig departing for Vanderbilt. Syracuse usually has punting figured out, and pairing a very experienced long snapper (Bolinsky) with a freshman (Williams) should be a boost that helps avoid too much drop-off from All-American Nolan Cooney.

The return game’s a question mark because we haven’t seen much of what the candidates for those jobs can do at the college level. Pena impressed with a kick return touchdown last year, but the other options are largely guesses. We also don’t know what Pena can do on punts. It’ll be an adjustment — just hopefully not one with too many growing pains.

Also receiving votes: Duce Chestnut (Fr), Jarveon Howard (Jr)

***

Hopefully this makes some sense as laid out? There are a handful of positions on both sides of the ball that appear to need the rest of camp to come to a resolution, and we made an attempt to do that here. For Syracuse, though, the bigger test isn’t always whose name is on the top line of the depth chart. It’s who’s able to come in and make positive contributions when the starter inevitably gets hurt. Building that meaningful depth has been a tall order since joining the ACC. Fingers crossed that injuries aren’t the same concern this year as they were last.