Even unknowns provide optimism for Syracuse football in 2019

Andrew Armstrong
Syracuse linebacker Andrew Armstrong lines up against UConn. Mandatory Photo Credit: Initra Marilyn, The Juice Online.

Even with the Camping World Bowl win coming a week ago and fading ever further into the rearview mirror, the 2018 Syracuse football team still leaves a warm feeling in the fanbase. Led by a charismatic coach and one of the best players in school history at quarterback, the Orange returned to national prominence with ten wins and the long-term arrow for the program headed up.

Of course, Eric Dungey and a lot of his teammates experienced their final day in the sun at SU in the win over West Virginia. Chris Slayton, Dontae Strickland, Kielan Whitner, Jamal Custis, and many other players wrote the final chapter of their respective college football histories in that victory in Orlando.

Even with all of those players departing, there is a lot for Orange fans to look forward to, both known and unknown.

Yes, unknown.

Of course, there are a lot of players who played leading roles the field and will return next season. Moe Neal fell just shy of 1,000 yards from scrimmage and Sean Riley led the team with 64 receptions. Both juniors will almost certainly play big roles for SU next season.

Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson each had ten sacks as juniors and classmate Evan Foster was third on the team in tackles. Kingsley Jonathan was third on the team with five sacks as a sophomore.

Taj Harris was third on the team in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns as a freshman. Freshman safety Andre Cisco was among the nation’s leaders with seven interceptions and topped the SU defense with 11 pass breakups.

Beyond those who were among the team’s statistical leaders, there are players who gave everyone a sneak peek of what they could do.

» Related: Way too early predictions on the 2019 Syracuse football team

Tommy DeVito was not remarkable while throwing 87 passes this season, but he played a significant role in wins over Florida State and North Carolina. Jarveon Howard hammered out a short yardage role this season, rushing for seven scores, but also ripped off a 52-yard run, the second longest of the season for Syracuse.

A pair of transfers made a splash in SU’s bowl game. Abdul Adams, the transfer from Oklahoma, had a pair of touchdown runs and Trishton Jackson, the wide receiver who came over from Michigan State, had a touchdown grab. Both have two years of eligibility remaining.

While lots of players showed some of what they can do in their limited opportunities, it remains to be seen what a lot of the unknowns on the roster do, specifically with how they can be coached up by the Orange staff.

For instance, the top four linebackers from the 2017 team all wrapped up their eligibility at the end of that campaign. As a result, linebacker was a big question coming into 2018, especially when it came to replacing Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett.

Ryan Guthrie, who had been a junior college All-American, barely played linebacker his junior year at SU, even spending time as a very undersized defensive end at the end of the season. Kielan Whitner, who had spent the bulk of his first three seasons at safety, tallied 76 stops during his career.

The two ended up being the primary linebackers for the Orange and both finished with triple digits in tackles as seniors. Guthrie led the team with 107 stops, including a team-high 66 solo tackles, and finished second on the squad with 16.5 tackles for loss. Listed at just 215 pounds, Whitner had 100 tackles, a pair of picks, and four quarterback hits. Not bad for a couple of relative unknowns coming into the season.

Both players exhausted their eligibility this season, but who is to say there are not players ready to step into their roles? Andrew Armstrong and Shy Cullen saw action in every game, combining for 76 tackles. Could they be the next strong linebacker tandem in 2019? Or are there other players lurking on the roster who only need an opportunity to show what they can do, linebackers or otherwise?

While the team will undoubtedly miss the seniors who helped propel them to ten wins and national prominence, there are plenty of reasons for optimism for 2019, even if those reasons have not made themselves known yet.

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Jim Stechschulte
About Jim Stechschulte 539 Articles
A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.