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Syracuse football spring position preview: Defensive line

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Taking a stab at the other side of the trenches.

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It’s that time of year again. Spring practice for the Syracuse Orange is right around the corner and that means that the TNIAAM staff is doing a deep dive into the position groups. This week we’re heading to the big-dogs in the defensive trenches, the defensive line.

If you missed the other pieces to the puzzle, you can find quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers/tight ends, offensive line and the coaching staff in the in the archives. The forthcoming previews will be coming at you weekly, through the rest of the spring. Without further ado, it’s time to talk about some hogs.

Who’s gone?

Most of the snaps from the group last year, including McKinley Williams (424), Kingsley Jonathan (270), Cody Roscoe (514) and Josh Black (337)... you know, the four guys who played starters minutes at the three spots on the line. Curtis Harper, who garnered 189 snaps at DT last season opted to transfer to Akron in the offseason. Joe Rondi is heading to Monmouth. Nothing big to replace or anything.

Who’s on campus?

Seemingly a good number of bodies, but definitely not a lot of experience. Strangely, a redshirt junior is the only upperclassman on the unit in Caleb Okechukwu. The rest of the defensive ends include redshirt sophomore Steve Linton, redshirt freshmen Jatius Geer, Patrick Alberga and Derek McDonald.

NCAA Football: Liberty at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Incoming true freshman Denis Jaquez Jr and Francois Nolton Jr are both on campus this spring as well as early enrollees.

The elder statesman at tackle is redshirt sophomore Kevon Darton, followed by sophomore Terry Lockett, who is probably the most experienced of the interior linemen. Redshirt freshmen Elijah Fuentes-Cundiff, Elijah Wright, Chase Simmons,

Who’s arriving this summer?

Florida product Belizaire Bassette will be arriving to add needed depth to the interior. On top of an all-name team selection, he’ll also look to contribute at tackle. Kevin Jobity, the raw Buffalo native will be a project who’s position will be determined with how he develops. He has a good frame and can project at either end or tackle.

How do you replace the production of two super-duper seniors and an All-ACC performer at defensive end?

At defensive end this unit looks young and green, but with some potential. Caleb Okechukwu leads the returners at defensive end, getting some good experience last season through the year, garnering 258 snaps through the year and is the most experienced returner. Steve Linton apparently lost eight pounds and at 217, I wouldn’t be surprised with him switching back to linebacker at some point, were it not for the dearth of DE bodies. He garnered some looks towards the tail end of the year in pass rush situations. Okechukwu had one sack on the year to go with his 14 tackles and five hurries, with Linton adding a sack. That’s the entirety of the production returning.

Beyond the two of them, you’re looking at a total of 19 snaps. All of them were from Jatius Geer last season against Albany. So they’re really thin. The addition of the two freshman in Jaquez and Nolton in the spring could bode well for them to be added to the mix. We’ve seen impact spring additions as true freshmen at other positions, why not here?

Replacing the production of this unit will be an uphill battle. Losing Roscoe is tough, 8.5 sacks is never easy, but losing the experience will be just as hard or harder from the other three.

What will the interior look like with the loss of Bear?

Lockett got in to spell Bear at tackle 173 times on the season, with Darton just behind at 124. I know, because the stats aren’t really there at DT, it’s tough to gauge, but both got some good run on the season and valuable experience. Much like the ends, tackle is very light on experience after that. The three redshirt frosh haven’t seen the field for more than 18 snaps all of them by Fuentes-Cundiff, against Albany. It’s like a true mirror image.

Lockett had two sacks on the year along with four tackles and four hurries, Darton also had four hurries and four tackles, and Fuentes-Cundiff had a single tackle which were the only stats from the returners.

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The fact that there’s only three remaining in the unit, and minimal production on top of that, seems to mimic the ends.

What can be done to improve the unit before the season?

At present, the defensive line is probably the weak point on the team when it comes to depth and experience. Per practice reports they’re even giving Josh Hough, running back, absolute tank, and new injury returnee a look with the group, furthering his comparisons to the one and only Rhino, Chris Elmore. Speaking of Elmore, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see something real crazy like him running both ways for some snaps at tackle even. He may be the most experienced defensive tackle on the team.

It’s almost as if there absolutely needs to be some targets in the transfer market to bring someone in to compete here. The staff has mentioned in the past that they’ll be looking more at the portal when spring practice comes to a close and they can evaluate needs. I would very much assume that this will be a need.

It’s also of note that UCF transfer and former Virginia Tech defensive tackle Cam Goode announced via twitter that he’ll be taking a visit on 3/25, so that’s a potential option to keep an eye on. He’s a former teammate of Okechukwu and Aman Greenwood at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C..

Outside of the portal, it may be that Chris Achuff and the staff are willing to place faith in the development of this group of linemen. If that’s the case, I think we’re in for some quality surprises this season, but it wouldn’t hurt to bolster with a bit of talent through the portal, if nothing else, for depth.