SU Football returned to spring practice a few weeks ago for the first time in over two calendar years. Every team across the country lost the 15 allotted training sessions in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. As a result you saw teams like Navy get blown out by BYU early on because they “weren’t hitting in practice.”
For Syracuse, the lack of spring ball played a major role in why the Orange went 1-10. Last season marked just the second time since 1948 that SU won just one game throughout a season. You can blame the shortcomings on Tommy DeVito, the opt-outs, or Coach Babers, but here’s the reality: How can you expect a team coming off a 5-7 season that lost a lot of talent to play potent football when there was nearly no time for preparation? Keep in mind Syracuse was replacing both its offensive and defensive coordinators.
Whatever the case, we should all be glad that spring football is a go this year, and SU can at least have some time for installation, evaluations, and decisions. With that said, we’re going to play the role of Coach Babers today at Orange Fizz and pick our projected two-deep. We’ve already penciled in the offense, so let’s give the defensive side of the ball a try. *Please note the eligibility reflects current status as the school year is still in session*
- Josh Black | 6-3, 282 / R-Sr.
- Cody Roscoe | 6-1, 258 / Sr.
One of the gems from the 2016 recruiting class, Black returns for the Orange to once again anchor one of the end positions. He started all 11 games here for SU last season and should have another big year. Cody Roscoe transferred to Syracuse from McNeese State, following in current offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s footsteps. The Texas native appeared in all 11 games for SU last season and tied for third on the team with six tackles for loss.
- Mckinley Williams | 6-4, 291 / R-Sr.
- Curtis Harper | 6-2, 296 / R-Jr.
“Bear” is another member of the 2016 recruiting class and far outplayed his low ranking. His return is huge for Syracuse and should be the leader of the defense serving as the lynchpin on the line. Harper will get time as well, he rotated in and out last season in all of SU’s 11 contests. He made 14 tackles and registered 1.5 tackles for loss.
- Kingsley Jonathan | 6-3, 264 / Sr.
- Caleb Okechukwu | 6-4, 257 / R-So.
Jonathan completes the return of “The Big 3” up front for the Orange. He could’ve gone pro last season, but instead returns to the Hill to boost his draft stock. He started all 11 games for the Cuse’ last year and finished with 32 tackles, 5.5 TFL, and 3 sacks. Okechukwu is seasoned as well having played in every game last season. He racked up 14 tackles and recorded a sack vs Louisville. He should get some time in the rotation next season.
Weak-Side Linebacker (WLB)
- Marlowe Wax | 6-0, 230 / Fr.
- Geoff Cantin-Arku | 6-4, 228 / So.
Linebacker is where the predicting gets difficult. The gap between 1 and 2, especially at WLB isn’t very large. I give Wax the nod because he started in SU’s last game of 2020 vs Notre Dame, his lone start of the 2020 season. He was actually a three-star running back recruit out of high school, but Babera and Company opted to slot him at defense. He shined as a true freshman finishing with 33 tackles, 5.5 TFL, and 3 sacks in eleven games played.
Cantin-Arku started the other 10 games at this spot last season, but was replaced by Wax. He led SU with 4 sacks and had a scoop and score vs Duke. He’s definitely going to see time in the second level for SU, so think of this as a 1A and 1B situation.
Middle Linebacker (MLB)
- Mikel Jones | 6-1, 230 / So.
- Tyrell Richards | 6-4, 234 / R-Jr.
This is Jones’ spot, he emerged as one of the better linebackers in the ACC last season. The IMG Academy product led all linebackers in America with 4 picks last season. On top of that, he led the team with 69 tackles, a pair of TFL’s, a sack, 3 forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. Jones is as complete a linebacker you’ll find in the country, and is a playmaker as the quarterback of the defense.
As for his backup, well that’s a bit of a question mark. Lee Kpogba shined at times last season for Syracuse, and personally I was intrigued by his future at linebacker. That future is on hold for now as he was suspended indefinitely from the football program back in late February.
Luckily for the Orange, defensive coordinator Tony White has a veteran option in Tyrell Richards. He played in eight games last year and started three at SLB. However, I think SU has players better suited at that spot so he can rotate in and out at Mike. His career stats include 54 tackles 9.5 TFL’s, and six sacks. Don’t be surprised if Cantin-Arku steps in here as well, each of the linebackers on the SU roster can play any of the positions, but especially between WLB and MLB, Syracuse is flexible with athletic playmakers.
Strong-Side Linebacker (SLB)
- Stefon Thompson | 6-0, 235 / Fr.
- Steve Linton | 6-5, 224 / R-Fr.
This is how it looked to begin and end last season and this is how the two-deep at SLB looks in 2021. Thompson took advantage of early enrollment last winter and got the starting nod in the opener vs UNC. He started seven games last season and became the first frosh to start at linebacker since 2011 (Dyshawn Davis). He tallied 35 tackles, 7.5 TFL’s, and 3 sacks. He’s a little bit more of a complete backer which is why he gets the top spot.
Linton played a lot last season and that will continue this year. He’s not as much of a linebacker as Thompson is, and the coaches use him as a stand-up edge rusher on the line. He actually played defensive end in high school and in 2019 for SU, but Tony White has found a spot for him at outside linebacker.
- Rob Hanna | 6-0, 168 / Fr.
- Ben Labrosse | 6-2, 200 / Fr.
Hanna returns after being thrust into action as a true freshman due to the unexpected injury of Andre Cisco. The Florida native started the final nine games of the 2020 season. His best performance came against Duke when he totaled 12 tackles and recovered a fumble. He needs to add weight this offseason, but he has a promising future.
Labrosse appeared in nine games last season and was a key member of the SU special teams unit. He has the frame and athleticism to play and should be in the rotation next season. He made a career-high three tackles and had a tackle for loss against Louisville last season.
- Aman Greenwood | 5-10, 180 / R-Fr.
- Adrian Cole | 5-10, 171 / R-Fr.
Another case of young players getting forced into action; however, this means they come back with some experience and both Greenwood and Cole fit this bill. The Washington D.C. native played in ten games last season and started the final seven. At times he looked shaky, but he flashed his potential at others. He was a big recruiting win for SU coming out of national powerhouse St. Johns College so look for that talent to spark next season.
Cole will be in the rotation for SU. He’s finally getting over an injury that plagued him in his freshman season. He played in five games last season and combined for nine tackles between games against Louisville and Notre Dame.
Strong Safety (Boundary Safety)
- Ja’Had Carter | 6-2, 191 / Fr.
- Eric Coley | 6-2, 206 / R-Jr.
I know that Coley is the veteran player here, but in this case it’s meaningless. He missed almost all of last season with an injury. So Carter earned plenty more experience playing in the 3-3-5 scheme and he impressed while doing it. He started ten of eleven games for the Orange and finished second on the team with 67 tackles. Carter was unbelievable against NC State, he made a career-high 13 tackles, a career best 2 tackles for loss and forced a fumble. This guy is a playmaker and is the future at safety for Syracuse.
Coley should have a role to play, especially as a veteran leader in the back end. He looked good in the opener against UNC making four tackles, but that’s all we saw from him. So between nursing an injury and lacking experience with the defense, it’s Carter’s spot to lose.
- Garrett Williams | 5-11, 184 / R-Fr.
- Duce Chestnut | 6-0, 190 / Fr.
With Iffy Melifonwu and Trill Williams off to pursue professional careers, this secondary now belongs to Garrett Williams. He’s also known as the first and only player to ever take a Trevor Lawrence interception back for a touchdown. Williams earned freshman All-American honors from the Athletic, and honorable mention All-ACC. He led the conference with 12 passes defended, tied for the lead with 10 pass breakups, and led all ACC corners averaging 5.8 tackles per game. He’s a rising star for the Orange and has plenty of more accolades on the horizon.
Get the Chestnut hype train rolling now. He was a huge get for Syracuse and was at one point a 4-star prospect. In any case, he was SU’s highest rated recruit and has all the tools to see the field early.
- Neil Nunn | 6-0, 183 / R-Fr.
- Kyle Strickland | 6-0, 186 / R-Sr.
Nunn has all the tools to start. He battled injuries last season and only played in four games. He also had some off the field problems during the offseason. The former blue chip recruit now has the opportunity to hold down one side of the field.
Strickland is another experienced player, he’s gone through five seasons on the Hill. He’s mainly been a reserve defensive back, as well as a key special teams member. He’s played under the bright lights and made some tackles so he gets the benefit of the doubt.