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Syracuse football 2021 position preview: Linebackers

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Maybe the engine that powers the Orange defense this year...

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

We’re officially less than a month from the start of the 2021 Syracuse Orange football season. And whether that spurs dread or hope for you (or something in between), we’re still forging ahead toward the end of our preview pieces.

If you’ve missed TNIAAM’s 2021 position previews to this point, maybe start off with last week’s defensive line rundown. This week, we’re looking at:

Linebackers

A transition to a new defensive scheme is always daunting, but there are certainly extra challenges when you’re fielding a very young linebacker corps. As a result, last year’s 3-3-5 switch was not always perfect, but the adjustment with a green group also presented opportunities. Without as many bad habits or previous tendencies at the collegiate level, Syracuse’s linebackers could just figure it out and define roles for themselves.

Better still, the Orange used the season to get snaps for a lot of players. And even if things didn’t always work, SU now has a ton of linebackers with copious experience, who can be used interchangeably depending on the need. That versatility could really pay off against the ACC’s various, dynamic offenses in 2021.

Linebackers

Mikel Jones, Sophomore

Jones was a fixture within the Orange defense last year, leading the ACC in interceptions with four, while leading Syracuse with 68 tackles. Along with third-team freshman All-American honors, he was also honorable mention on the All-ACC team. Add to that the fact that he was the team’s best pass-rusher (rated 80.9 out of 100 says Pro Football Focus), and it’s exciting to think about what he may be able to progress into in year three here.

Geoff Cantin-Arku, Sophomore

In recent years, Syracuse may have lacked the steady hand in the middle of the defense, but that seemed to change at times last season with Cantin-Arku’s play at middle linebacker. He was fourth on the team in tackles with 63, ad collected six tackles for loss on the year, too. There’s room to grow as a run-stopper, but he was an effective pass-rusher (third-ranked SU linebacker there, per PFF). If he can show improvement against the run in 2021, that’s one way you see this defense take major leaps forward.

Stefon Thompson, Freshman

Thompson started on the strongside in his first season on campus, and impressively was second on the team in TFLs with 7.5. Among returning ACC linebackers and edge defenders, he’s ranked 14th overall (by last year’s PFF ratings), and is a top-five returning run defender in the conference. For him, the key is how he progresses playing in coverage, but he has sneaky upside as (quietly) one of the better linebackers in the league already.

Marlow Wax, Freshman

When Wax first committed, we thought we were getting a power running back at 6-feet tall and 232 pounds, but instead is the heaviest linebacker on the squad (not a knock at all), and one of its best tacklers. He’s shown himself adept at getting into opposing backfields, and with another year at the college level, we should see even more of it. The fact he put up big numbers without starting much is notable, and a great sign for SU’s newfound depth here.

Lee Kpogba, Sophomore (note: Kpogba is now no longer with the program)

Full disclosure, it’s no sure thing that Kpogba’s back and based on the Ole Miss visit and Dino Babers not having a definitive answer there either during ACC media days, I’m not necessarily banking on him returning from indefinite suspension. But even without starting last year, he was pretty solid. Kpogba had 43 tackles, was technically the team’s best tackler (by PFF grades) and one of its best pass rushers. If he isn’t back, his ability and experience will be missed.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 26 Syracuse at Florida State Photo by Logan Stanford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Steve Linton, (Redshirt) Freshman

Linton’s shift from the line to linebacker was part of a greater shift to get the linebacker corps. taller and longer (he’s the tallest member of this position group at 6-foot-5). Now it’s also part of providing valuable depth when the rest of the players on this depth chart haven’t really seen the field much. If Kpogba isn’t back, you’ll see Linton more, especially given his abilities to get after opposing passers.

Leon Lowery, Freshman

Lowery’s the last of the returning scholarship linebackers to see the field last year, and he actually made his limited time count while logging five tackles (0.5 for loss) in three games. Another surer tackler with pass-rushing talent, he seems likely to increase his role here in year two — again, something that gets a lot more straightforward for him if Kpogba doesn’t return.

Anwar Sparrow, Freshman

Back in high school, Sparrow was a major playmaker on defense and while he didn’t get to see the field for Syracuse in 2020, being on campus was enough to start getting a handle for the scheme. While the team’s theoretically moved away from “smaller” linebackers, just one of the top four players at the position is taller than 6-foot-1. So a 6-foot Sparrow isn’t going to be stopped from seeing the field — especially if he can look anything like the guy that logged 19 TFLs as a high school senior.

Malik Matthew, Freshman

The 6-foot-3 Bronx product was New York’s top linebacker in the class of 2021, and now he’s likely to get a year to take in the scheme and adjust to college life. We could see him here and there on special teams without burning the redshirt, but would expect him to get a redshirt.

Austin Roon, Freshman

Roon’s a talented athlete who can play on the outside and seems to take great angles to make stops — both in the open field and behind the line. He could probably add a few pounds in a college weight room (he’s listed at 215 pounds right now). But a redshirt year could do the trick there.

Derek McDonald, Freshman

McDonald is another addition whose high school stat line suggestions he’s a disruptive force within a defense. He had 22 tackles for loss as a senior, which is impressive and the sort of skill you may be able to work with quickly. Another possible redshirt, but one that could get a look on special teams.

Ryan Dolan, Freshman

Dolan’s the lone walk-on at linebacker, and it wouldn’t seem likely he gets defensive snaps. But there’s a chance he gets some special teams reps. Admittedly, though, this is a crowded group for playing time and obviously with so much experience back, it’s going to be hard for anyone (on scholarship or not) to break through.

Syracuse v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The most important thing here is that there’s both an established group of starters, but also plenty of experience behind them, which is not something that’s been the case for awhile at Syracuse. Of course, there would be even more of it had Tyrell Richards stayed and TBD on Kpogba. Still, there’s four players with extensive snaps under their belts, and others with enough playing time that they’re not just getting thrown into the fire.

As mentioned above, what we’re looking for in year two of this core group is perhaps more well-rounded play. The players that are better at run defense could get a little bit better in pass coverage, and vice versa. But that’s the benefit of having a younger group like this too. You can sort of bank on some sort of progress the more snaps they get and more time they play together. So if there’s concern about the “what if” we’re playing here, that’s fair. But you could also argue that this group is the most prepared for that sort of leap of any on the Orange right now.