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Syracuse football spring position preview: Offensive line

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Syracuse at Ohio Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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 touching on the most important group on the field (though I may be partial), the offensive line.

If you missed the other pieces to the puzzle, you can find quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers/tight ends 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.

Can the experience of this unit bolster the offense?

Who’s gone?

Airon Servais. That’s it. He’s the only one that’s not back for another go-around. He is the all time Orange leader in consecutive games played at 60. The versatile lineman played through injury a good bit and I think he’s given enough to the program over six seasons.

Dakota Davis is a senior academically and will be a redshirt senior this season, but has stated he’s returning. Darius Tisdale is the only other player listed as a senior or redshirt junior, and we won’t know until we see the spring game, but it seems likely he’s going to run it back as a key depth piece on this line moving forward.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 Wake Forest at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who’s on campus?

The rest of the returning unit is intact, so that’s a good sign. The returners with starting experience include junior Matthew Bergeron, redshirt juniors Carlos Vettorello and Chris Bleich, sophomores Kalan Ellis and Josh Ilaoa, and the aforementioned Davis and Tisdale.

We also have the returns of some of the depth pieces, including a few bodies back from injury that could retake a spot on a depth chart, including redshirt juniors Wil Froumy and Ryan Kisselstein, juniors Mark Petry and Jakob Bradford, redshirt sophomore Anthony Red, sophomores Garth Barclay, Enrique Cruz, Wes Hoeh, Austyn Kauhi, Tyler Magnussen and Ahmad Massoud.

Who’s arriving this summer?

True freshmen Chad Schuster and Joe Cruz will be coming aboard in the summer. Schuster is a three star tackle from Wisconsin, adding a midwestern road grader to the mix. Cruz is a three star tackle from Long Island and was rated the tenth best player in NY by 247sports.com for 2022.

Who’s going to be keeping Garrett Shrader upright and Sean Tucker moving?

If everyone in this unit is actually healthy, that’s an interesting proposition. As mentioned above, there’s a good number of bodies that have gotten important snaps for the Orange over the years. I think this one will come down pretty significantly to chemistry and who is working best, where, in spring ball.

A pleasant surprise last season was the run blocking, which improved dramatically as a unit, likely due to the big men staying healthier, but also because of the arrival of Mike Schmidt. Schmidt was a talent at San Diego State where he formed one of the most consistent run blocking units in the country and hopefully we can keep Syracuse trending that way for Sean Tucker’s sake.

As noted below, there were a multitude (eight... really? Eight?) of starting fives through the season last year, some more effective than others, but it got Schmidt a chance to get good game speed looks at a lot of bodies. Dare I say they are who we thought they were.

Starting Syracuse Offensive Line

Year LT LG C RG RT Record
Year LT LG C RG RT Record
2022 (P) Matthew Bergeron Kalan Ellis Carlos Vettorello Chris Bleich Dakota Davis ?
2021h Matthew Bergeron Chris Bleich Airon Servais Dakota Davis Darius Tisdale 0-1
2021g Matthew Bergeron Josh Ilaoa Airon Servais Dakota Davis Darius Tisdale 0-1
2021f Matthew Bergeron Kalan Ellis Airon Servais Dakota Davis Darius Tisdale 0-1
2021e Matthew Bergeron Kalan Ellis Airon Servais Chris Bleich Dakota Davis 1-0
2021d Matthew Bergeron Kalan Ellis Airon Servais Dakota Davis Carlos Vettorello 1-2
2021c Matthew Bergeron Chris Bleich Airon Servais Dakota Davis Carlos Vettorello 1-1
2021b Matthew Bergeron Chris Bleich Airon Servais Darius Tisdale Carlos Vettorello 1-0
2021a Matthew Bergeron Chris Bleich Carlos Vettorello Darius Tisdale Airon Servais 1-1
Starting Offensive Line 2021 S. Haller

You know that Bergeron is in all pen at left tackle, but beyond that, things get questionable, though I’d argue in a good way. Kalan Ellis emerged in the Florida State game as a talent to be watched. When Chris Bleich went down, it was a bit of an unknown how the unit would adapt, but Ellis stepped in from day one and looked very good as a true freshman, similar to how Bergeron won his starting spot. At center, Vettorello, though coming off injury and starting to look good on the outside before his injury, is your most experienced body. I’ve got to pencil him in there until I see otherwise. On the right side, Davis has shown the willingness and ability to move to tackle and if that’s where his super-senior year will show him having the most impact, I would say we see that, with Bleich at guard.

That leave some experience behind the first unit, with Darius Tisdale backing up the right side, Josh Ilaoa as an interior line backup, and a lot of young promise behind them developing in the spring. Though Ilaoa backed up Servais when Vettorello was playing tackle, I would assume Carlos would be the experience and talent level play at center, though one of the interior linemen could develop the needed skills to slot in there, or Ilaoa may make the jump we’re hoping for and slot in for Servais.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Syracuse at Ohio Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

How does the offensive staff change effect the line play?

The additions of Robert Anae and Justin Beck to the offensive staff seem to signal a shift towards a more air oriented offense, assuming we’re able to actually put the ball in the air in a consistent manner with our quarterback play. If this can come to fruition and balance out the offense from what we saw last season, it can only help out the unit as a whole, as the defense will have to honor the pass and not just tee off on twists and late stunts that were what really gave the unit heartburn. The combination play between the lineman in any of the combos not experienced with each other left some room for improvement this offseason.

Per PFF.com, the pass blocking of the unit last year was a 54.0 on the season. If you don’t remember, 60.0 is the Mendoza line for PFF, and considered your pass/fail grade. Some gems including a 38.7 against Rutgers and an impressive 31.4 as a team against Louisville show there’s some room for improvement here. Even the run blocking was only a 57.9 average with Tucker showing a 74.5 running average. It’s like he was doing what he did in spite of the line in front of him.

If Anae wants to improve the pass game, work some tempo and not always be stuck in third and long where the defense can tee off against your pass blockers, I can only be seen as a positive.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 27 Pitt at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who could we see step up this year, ala Kalan Ellis?

Last year the Orange got a welcome surprise in the emergence of Kalan Ellis. I mentioned before that he was slotted in as a true freshman ala Matthew Bergeron and seemed up to the task. While I don’t forsee either of the true frosh coming in and making the same impact (I could be wrong, I didn’t see if from Ellis either), rising sophomores Enrique Cruz and Austyn Kuahi are both big frames that could make a splash.

The hopeful return from injury for a few of the upperclassmen should help in the depth department as well. Anthony Red, Mark Petry and Jakob Bradford were all on the two-deep at points over the past years, depending on whether they were healthy or not (or in Bradford’s case, on the team). It will be interesting to see if any step up at this point and push the unit from within as well.

In general it’s a unit that has plenty of experience, but keeps getting hit with the injury bug. If they can stay healthy and improve from another year in the system with solid coaching and an improvement in the quality of playcalling and not telegraphing what’s being called, it may show as another improved position group on the field. We’ll wait to see if it’s enough to keep the Orange playing into December.