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Syracuse football’s defensive linemen are unsung heroes in sharp turnover spike

A surprise to be sure, but a welcome one.

Army v Syracuse Photo by Edward Diller/Getty Images

We’ve been hearing since the spring that Syracuse Orange football was working hard to get back to forcing turnovers. Four games into the season, they’ve definitely shown significant improvement on that front.

The Orange already have 10 turnovers (six interceptions and four fumble recoveries) early in the campaign; for reference, they had 19 all of last season.

“We want the ball,” said safety Alijah Clark, who has one of the recoveries. “Everybody on this team is hungry.”

Most of those stats are showing up in the secondary. Rover Justin Barron has a pair of picks, while Jeremiah Wilson and Jason Simmons Jr. went one step further (actually, many steps further) and put six points on the board themselves.

But none of them view it as doing the work alone. I asked Barron about the uptick in turnovers this season, and the defensive captain immediately pointed out the front three:

“We give credit where credit is due. The D-line is more often than not the reason that we get those turnovers. When they’re getting pressure in the quarterback’s face, and the quarterback has to throw the ball up quicker before his read’s complete, that gives us opportunities to make a play. So all credit goes out to those guys doing their job every single snap.”

Caleb Okechukwu and Denis Jaquez have manned the edges this season, with Kevon Darton in the interior. Terry Lockett has also been working his way back and saw his snap count continue to rise against Army last time out.

“All those guys are greedy,” Clark said “If you have a conversation with them off the field, the only thing they talk about is football. Those guys are locked in, and it shows on Saturdays.”

A concern entering the season was that the line, which compared to most is a bit undersized, would not be able to win enough one-on-one matchups with blockers to open up holes for the linebackers. While their toughest battles still lie ahead of them, the group has kept opposing passers contained thus far.

The first pair of INTs on the season were almost identically executed. You’ll notice in the film how the Orange rush five, with one of the LBs serving as a spy and choosing to also rush just after the drop back. With the pocket collapsing from the sides, the QB has no choice but to run forward - where the spy and other interior d-men quickly disengage and swarm, forcing a poorly placed throw to avoid a sack.

Of course, we think these results are a lot better than just a sack.

Fast forward to Purdue, where the Orange are even able to get instant pressure on a three-man rush. Jaquez beats his man at the top, and Okechukwu almost has an angle on QB Hudson Card before he fires the ball a bit too high.

Was this one a lucky tip straight to Marlowe Wax? Sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that Rocky Long’s 3-3-5 is keeping opponents guessing. ‘Cuse could just have easily sent all three LBs on that play, forcing both guards to keep their eyes inside instead of dropping back and doubling up on the edge rushers.

This next play has some shades of both examples: ‘Cuse shows five and rushes four, but it’s again pressure from the outside that quickly shrinks the pocket and make the quarterback attempt to scramble straight ahead.

The difference is having that extra body in the mix. There’s a tighter window to escape out of, giving Anwar Sparrow enough time to come all the way around and hit Army’s Bryson Daily just enough to send the throw straight into the hands of Barron.

Finally, this blitz package has some misdirection which resulted in another pick. It starts as a five-man rush, but right after Daily drops back, Darton backs off and Stefon Thompson comes barreling across to the opposite side of the interior.

At the same time, Caleb and Anwar get excellent first steps and barely have to brush their way past first contact. With the offensive line completely outmaneuvered, there’s no choice but to let it fly - and even that doesn’t work because of last-second contact.

One thing’s for sure: the guys up front are much appreciated by the rest of the defense.

“They have a lot of respect for us,” Lockett said. “Football is played with everyone, so if the front does good, the back end good does good.”