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Syracuse football spring position preview: Linebackers

The blitzers are back in business

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

The Syracuse Orange are back at spring practices as the Orange and Blue exhibition game gets closer. That also means we’re rolling forward with our defensive spring previews. With the defensive line already taken care of, we now move on to the linebackers.

If you missed out on any of the offensive previews, you can catch up on the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers/tight ends, and offensive line (and the coaching staff for good measure.) We’ll wrap things up with the secondary and special teams over the next two weeks.

Will the Same Starting Crew produce the Same Results?

Who’s Gone?

The Orange will only be missing one consistent player from last season. Geoff Cantin-Arku decided to transfer out in Week 11, after the game at Louisville. On paper, the sophomore regressed from his first full season, collecting only one sack on the year. He spent most of his time at the Mike, but also contributed to special teams.

Erik Slater is also gone after using his final year of eligibility with Syracuse. He only played special teams in two non-conference games.

Who’s on campus?

Mikel Jones is back after considering a move to the NFL. The Defensive Captain’s return is huge for this unit. He was second in the ACC with 110 total tackles and led the conference with 60 solo tackles. He also added 13 tackles-for-loss, 3 sacks, and a fumble recovery.

When I spoke with him during the first full day with pads, Jones was adamant on replicating his 2020 performance. Specifically, Jones wants to get back in the takeaway column: he had three forced fumbles and four interceptions in 2020, putting him atop the nation in defensive turnovers, but he was blanked in both last year.

The First Team All-ACC standout isn’t alone. Stefon Thompson is coming off his first full season as a starter. The Sophomore racked up 6 sacks and a forced fumble while starting in all 12 games.

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

Marlowe Wax is the other rising sophomore. He has started every game for the Orange since joining the team in 2020. Wax collected 5 sacks last season.

Backing up these guys are six redshirt freshmen: Anwar Sparrow, Leon Lowery, Malik Matthew, Austin Roon, John O’Connor, and walk-on Ryan Dolan. The lone freshman signing was Mekhi Mason, a 3-star from Miami, FL.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Barring any surprise finds via the transfer portal, this roster seems pretty set in stone. We don’t expect any more linebackers to be added to the team.

How important is Mikel Jones’s return?

Just like I emphasized Sean Tucker’s importance to the offense, I’m highlighting just how vital Jones is to the defense. His decision to stay another year keeps the 3-3-5 defensive structure secured in place - the same defense that was ranked in the Top 20 for fewest yards allowed per game last year. The same three linebackers can wreak havoc again - so long as they stay healthy. And if for any reason they don’t...

Is the lack of proven depth a concern?

The lack of a veteran presence was a major concern last year, when there was not a single upperclassman in this group (or one, if you disregard how COVID rules altered class standing). Now, it’s just the backups that lack experience. Lowery is likely next-man-up if needed for a couple reasons. He has the largest build of the bunch (6’4”, 225 lbs.), along with the most action out of the redshirts: five games spread out over two seasons thanks to the added year of eligibility.

How does Steve Linton’s move back to the line affect things?

With the former outside linebacker committed to strengthening the weakest point on defense, there’s an even greater emphasis on the three-headed-monster of Jones, Wax, and Thompson to perform. It should open up opportunities for the freshmen to get a few snaps in, but with the way the schedule is this year (non-conference opponents are no longer stacked at the start of the calendar), they might not have much time for a learning curve.