When you think of Syracuse under Dino Babers, offense immediately rushes to the mind. And rightfully so. Especially when the defense finished the 2016 season ranked 122nd out of 128 teams in total defense, while allowing 501.1 yards per game. The summary of the defense’s season came in the final game when it surrendered 76 points to Pitt. But somewhere buried in that mess is actually one of the ACC’s best one-two defensive punches: linebackers Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett.
The linebackers have arguably been the Orange’s strongest unit on either side of the ball since the arrival of Franklin and Bennett. Last season, Franklin earned third team All-ACC honors, including the most points of any Syracuse defender. As for Bennett, he took home All-ACC honorable mention. The tandem became the first pair of SU teammates to each record more than 100 tackles since 2003. As expected, both players earned votes for the 2017 preseason All-ACC teams, with Franklin receiving the most points of any Orange player on either side of the ball.
This season should be no different. With returning experience, talent and leadership at the position, Franklin and Bennett are the spearheads of a group that can nurture some talented underclassmen. Alongside those two, Jonathan Thomas appears primed to start at strong side linebacker, putting three seniors in the middle of the Orange defense.
As for the reserves, SU has grad transfer Austin Valdez, who played for Bowling Green in Dino Babers final season with the Falcons. But not only that, he was under the watch of current Syracuse defensive coordinator in that season with the Falcons. He has familiarity with the system, which should help him make a seamless transition.
Other intriguing names in this group include both new and returning players. Ryan Guthrie, Andrew Armstrong and Kielan Whitner all appeared as second-stringers on the preseason depth chart that was released in mid-July.
Guthrie is the lone newcomer of that bunch. He is a transfer from Ellsworth Community College in Iowa where he starred as a two-time JuCo All-American. Also, Ellsworth is a highly regarded junior college. The school has produced four NFL players, all on the defensive side, including Hall of Fame linebacker Andre Tippett.
Whitner finished eighth on the team with 35 tackles last season.
As a true freshman, Armstrong appeared in all 12 games and was one of a dozen true freshmen to actually see the field.
The last name to keep an eye out for this season is Nadarius Fagan. The three star recruit is one of the most intriguing prospects in this 2017 class. Fagan turned down offers from Alabama, LSU, USC and Nebraska to join the Orange. The talent is clearly displayed based on who he drew interest from, but it may be tough for Fagan to crack through an experienced group. However, if he does, it will mean he is more than ready for the college game. But if he doesn’t he’s an obvious redshirt candidate.
Franklin and Bennett hold the defensive keys to getting the Orange to its first bowl game during their tenures, but they will need outside support from the position as well as the rest of the defense to improve from last year’s abysmal ranking.