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 linebackers, who will need to replace both starters from 2018.
Syracuse will need to replace both of its starting linebackers, and it loses three others.
At the top of the list was JUCO transfer and middle linebacker Ryan Guthrie, who earned All-ACC Second Team honors after leading the ACC with 107 tackles (66 solo) in 13 games at middle linebacker. Guthrie found his footing in the second half of the season, with 70 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss in his last seven games.
Also gone is weak-side linebacker Kielan Whitner, who finished second on the team with 100 tackles. The converted safety also finished eighth in the ACC in tackles per game (7.7).
Though Syracuse operated mostly out of a 4-2-5 alignment in 2018, in the games where they came out in 4-3, they started Shyheim Cullen at strong-side linebacker. He finished with 31 tackles, but was suspended for the spring due to academic reasons, and ultimately decided to enter the NFL supplemental draft instead of trying to return for his redshirt season.
Two linebackers who will not return are redshirt junior Tim Walton (appeared in four games) and junior Nadarius Fagan, who appeared in four games on special teams as a freshman, but didn’t see the field in 2018. Both entered their names into the transfer portal.
During the spring game, Lakiem Williams started at middle linebacker and Andrew Armstrong was slotted on the weak side.
Williams, a JUCO transfer from Butte College, was slowed by injuries in his first year at Syracuse, but still appeared in seven games and recorded four tackles.
Armstrong has played all three linebacker positions during his time at Syracuse, and made one start at strong-side linebacker in 2018. He mostly appeared in third-down packages in run situations, finishing with 45 tackles, and a memorable interception against NC State with 2:18 to go to preserve a 44-41 win.
Both finished with five tackles during the spring game.
WHO’S BACKING THEM UP
Two intriguing underclassmen who will be in the rotation are sophomore Juan Wallace and redshirt freshman Tre Allison. The two were among the first linebackers off the bench, and impressed on a few plays.
Wallace, who appeared in 13 games as a special teamer as a freshman, made several tackles on the outside. Allison caused a fumble that was eventually blown dead.
Another player to keep an eye out for is Tyrell Richards, a sophomore who could line up at defensive end or linebacker. Richards has drawn rave reviews during spring practice, and also showcased his potential in the Camping World Bowl, opening the game with a sack on his way to a career-high six tackles.
Behind them is one of the most talented linebacker groups to come through Syracuse in recent memory.
The Orange signed three linebackers in its 2019 class, headlined by four-star signees Mikel Jones and Lee Kpogba, who enrolled early and are already on campus. Another freshman, Geoff Cantin, was one of the top rated prospects in Canada.
Babers has been impressed with Kpogba and Jones so far.
“[The underclassmen] make mistakes, but they do it the right way,” Babers said. “They get to the ball angry, they knock things around. When you do that as a young linebacker you’re gonna grow up to be something. So we’re excited where those guys are.”
Redshirt sophomore Kadeem Trotter (has yet to play) is also returning.
This is the third straight year that Syracuse will need to replace all of its starting linebackers. It seemed to work out last year, with Whitner and Guthrie turning a unit that was perceived as a weak spot into a strength by the end of the season.
Syracuse shifted to 4-2-5 last year, and it’s going to be more of the same this year with the depth and talent in the secondary, with the Orange adding a third linebacker in run situations.
Armstrong is likely locked in at the weak-side linebacker position given his experience, but Williams’ hold on his starting job is a bit more tenuous. I expect to see plenty of Wallace and Allison, and by the end of the season, Kpogba and Jones could also make an impact as well.
It will likely take a few games for this unit to find its groove, much like last year. But whereas the 2018 schedule eased the Orange in, Syracuse plays at Maryland in week 2 before hosting Clemson in week 3.
There will be some growing pains, but the talent is there for this unit to once again emerge as a strength. Then again, with Williams and Armstrong out of eligibility at the end of the season, the Orange will have to do it all over again in 2020.