Lost in the shuffle of all the greatness that came with Syracuse football’s 2018 season (the program’s first ten win-season in nearly two decades and a Camping World Bowl victory over rival West Virginia come to mind) seems to be just how young some of the key members of the Orange were last season.
Two of its best offensive weapons, Taj Harris and Jarveon Howard? Both true freshman. How about the secondary? Andre Cisco was a freshman All-American and tied for the national lead in interceptions as a true freshman while Trill Williams also made an impact in the defensive backfield. That’s not to mention a couple of redshirt freshman getting in Ifeatu Melifonwu and Lou Groza Award winner Andre Szmyt impressing in their first official seasons in Orange and Blue.
The young guys really stepped up to help create the magical season that the Orange went on in 2018 and should all be a huge part of what SU tries to accomplish this fall as well. With that being said, however, there are some spots that are left weakened by graduation and that don’t really have any definitive superstars ready to step in and be sure-fire standouts. That’s where this next batch of newbies might just be able to step in.
The top-rated recruit in Syracuse’s 2019 recruiting class, Kpogba has a great chance at making an impact at the linebacker position for the Orange this fall. After losing two of its three starters (Ryan Guthrie and Kielan Whitner) to graduation, the linebacking corps is perhaps the biggest position group question mark Syracuse has going into the 2019 season. Andrew Armstrong will be back to man one of the spots, but the other one or two slots is pretty much wide open.
Some expect either junior college transfer Lakiem Williams or sophomore Juan Wallace to slide into some big-time snaps because they’ve both already spent a year in the program. DE/LB combo Tyrell Richards should also see some time at backer, but his position flexibility bodes well for a freshman like Kpogba trying to make an impact.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Kpogba see some time at outside linebacker this season because of his athleticism and ability to stick with running backs or speedy/athletic tight ends in pass coverage. That athletic ability and speed are probably his two best tools at the moment and when you couple those with a body that defensive coordinator Brian Ward said looked more like a junior in college than an incoming freshman, Kpogba’s got a chance to help what could be an ailing position group in his first season in the Dome.
Everything that can be said for Kpogba in terms of the amounts of opportunities he could get as a result of two of three starters graduating in the linebacking corps can also be said for Mikel Jones who was the second-best recruit in the class right behind Kpogba. Similarly to one of last year’s breakout freshmen in Cisco, Jones comes from IMG Academy and may have the ability to play right away, perhaps even more so than Kpogba. A physical and high-football IQ guy according to Justin Lusting and Ward, Jones will likely see his snaps come at middle linebacker in the mold of Ryan Guthrie, a big physical hitter that will rack up tackles like nobody’s business. Ward even said that they are expecting Jones to have an impact in the early goings of his career at Syracuse and it seems like most of the other linebacking talent (Armstrong, Wallace, Williams) are more geared toward playing OLB rather than in the middle, so we could be seeing a lot of Jones come the fall.
One of the biggest what-ifs of the 2018 recruiting cycle, Hendrix missed all of last season with a knee injury that required surgery, so even though he isn’t a true freshman like Kpogba or Jones, we’ll include him here. He’s back on the shelf right now with an unrelated lower leg injury that forced him to miss pretty much all of spring camp, but if he can get healthy he’s got the traits necessary to be a serious force in Syracuse’s offense over the next couple of years. At 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, Hendrix comes in the mold of a Steve Ishmael or Jamal Custis-type outside receiver that could be the deep threat downfield if he gets healthy. He can go up over the top of smaller defenders with his above-average hands and make plays that will make you go wow. He was the third best recruit in the 2018 class behind Trill Williams and Qadir White and the coaching staff were really excited about his potential when he first got to campus. This new injury isn’t expected to require surgery so if Hendrix can get back and healthy for the fall, he might have the opportunity to crack a loaded wideout rotation as an outside threat behind the likes of Trishton Jackson and classmate Taj Harris.