Position Breakdown: Defensive Line — 2019 Syracuse Football preview

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Syracuse's defense stops North Carolina in the first half. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

As we countdown to kickoff in August, we’re going to be doing a unit-by-unit preview each week over the summer. This week, we’re taking a look at the defensive line, one of the deepest and most talented units on Syracuse.

WHO’S OUT

Syracuse only loses one lineman from 2018, but it’s a big one (both literally and figuratively). Chris Slayton, the team’s defensive captain, was an All-ACC Honorable Mention after he made 24 tackles, including eight for a loss, and had 3.5 sacks.

Slayton didn’t have the gaudy numbers that some of his other linemen had, but he also consistently absorbed double teams, which freed up the ends to have stellar seasons (more on that below).

The New York Giants took note of Slayton’s exceptional strength, and selected him with the 31st pick in the seventh round (No. 245 overall).

PROJECTED STARTERS

The Orange return three starters from a defensive line that helped set a program record with 43 sacks.

Defensive ends Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson are back, as is defensive tackle McKinley Williams.

Robinson led all SU linemen in tackles with 39 and added 10 sacks, which was tied for second in the ACC with Coleman. He was named to the All-ACC Second Team after his junior season.

Coleman finished his junior year with 32 tackles (23 solo), including 12 for a loss. He was perhaps the biggest snub for the All-ACC Teams, though Athlon Sports named him to the 2019 preseason All-ACC Second Team.

» Related: Taking a look at the Syracuse running backs

Williams appeared in 12 games, starting nine of them. Though Williams didn’t play in the Camping World Bowl for “personal reasons,” Syracuse head coach Dino Babers said he is expected to return for the 2019 season.

Redshirt junior Josh Black was listed atop the depth chart as Slayton’s replacement at nose tackle for the spring game. He started four games last season, though he did miss two games in November with an injury. He finished with 14 tackles (10 solo) on the season.

WHO’S BACKING THEM UP

While Black was penciled in atop the depth chart for the spring game, that position is likely fluid, and redshirt freshman Caleb Okechukwu and senior KJ Ruff could make big pushes during summer camp.

Ruff was originally recruited to play linebacker before settling into his role on the interior defensive line. He appeared in all 13 games last season, and finished with 19 tackles and two sacks.

Okechukwu appeared in one game during his redshirt year, and though he was recruited as an end, could see time inside as well.

Other candidates for the interior line include Shaq Grosvenor, a former JUCO transfer, and redshirt sophomore Curtis Harper who played in the opener against Wagner in 2018.

Barring injury, Robinson and Coleman will start every game, but there is depth behind them, as well.

Junior Kingsley Jonathan solidified himself as the third defensive end in 2018, appearing in all 13 games and starting two of them. He finished third on the team in sacks (5) behind Robinson and Coleman, and added 21 tackles and six tackles for loss.

Other defensive ends that may push for playing time include senior Brandon Berry, senior Jake Pickard, redshirt freshman Zach Morton. Berry starred for SU’s defense in the spring game, leading all tacklers with five (4 solo).

Syracuse also added two defensive linemen in its 2019 signing class, with both Drew Tuazama and Cooper Dawson enrolling early. Both worked at the end position in the spring.

ANALYSIS

Slayton drew plenty of double teams in 2018, freeing up Coleman and Robinson to gobble up quarterbacks in the backfield. Though Slayton’s gone, it’s hard to imagine the ends not having productive seasons.

Even without Slayton, this is one of the deepest, most talented units on the team. In 2016 and 17, the Orange could only muster 16 sacks each year. That number jumped to 43 in 2018.

There’s no reason to think that Syracuse can’t finish in the vicinity of that number with Robinson and Coleman returning for their senior years.

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Wes Cheng
About Wes Cheng 2453 Articles
Wes has worked for Rivals.com covering the New York Knicks, as well as for Scout.com covering Syracuse athletics. Wes has also worked for the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) and reported on the NBA and MLB for the New York Sportscene. A native of Long Island, New York, Wes graduated from Syracuse University in 2005. Follow him on Twitter @ChengWes.