As we countdown to kickoff in August, we’re going to be tackling the biggest burning questions on the 2019 Syracuse football team. Today’s burning question: What can Syracuse expect from its group of linebackers, which will feature two new starters for the third straight year?
HELLO AND GOODBYE
By this point, even Syracuse head coach Dino Babers can’t keep count anymore.
“What is this, the third year?” Babers said. “I can’t keep track.”
Babers was referring to his starting linebackers, who will be a different group of players for the third straight year.
When Babers arrived in 2017, seniors Parris Bennett and Zaire Franklin started. Last year, another pair of seniors, Kielan Whitner and Ryan Guthrie were at the top of the depth chart.
Whitner and Guthrie both got off to slow starts, but ended up becoming a strength of the defense by season’s end.
Guthrie earned All-ACC Second Team honors after leading the ACC with 107 tackles (66 solo) in 13 games at middle linebacker. He was particularly good in the second half of the season, with 70 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss in his last seven games.
Meanwhile, Whitner, a converted safety, finished second on the team with 100 tackles and eighth in the ACC in tackles per game (7.7).
TWO NEW STARTERS
When Babers released his preseason depth chart in July, he once again put a pair of seniors as his starters.
“It’s going to be one of those years where we’ve got (Andrew Armstrong) and Lakiem (Williams) as upper classmen,” Babers said. “But I think we’re going to play enough guys where next year, we’re not going to worry about retaining guys again.”
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 started during the spring scrimmage and finished with five tackles each.
DEPTH FOR THE FUTURE
In the past, Syracuse has been so thin at linebacker that it rarely rotated. But with improved depth at the position, Babers has hinted that may change.
“We’re going to play the best guys,” Babers said. “If those bottom guys don’t play really well, they won’t play. I think we have more guys that we think can get on the field at that position and be productive. If they’re not productive, they won’t play.”
Behind Williams and Armstrong on the initial depth chart were sophomore Juan Wallace (MLB) and freshman Mikel Jones (WLB). They headline a talented, if inexperienced, group of linebackers that also include freshmen Tre Allison, Lee Kpogba and Geoff Cantin.
And though sophomore Tyrell Richards has been working with the defensive line so far in camp, he could also see time at both linebacker positions.
“He’s fast, so he can be an inside linebacker,” Babers said. “He’s quick enough to be a defensive end; he can play a lot of positions. He might even be able to play safety, but we won’t put him back there anytime soon.”
Given that both Armstrong and Williams are seniors, the Orange will have another new group of starting linebackers in 2020. But next time, linebackers will likely be a stable, experience group of players for the foreseeable future.
“It seems like we’re always putting new guys in there,” Babers said. “But after this year, we should have depth built to that position.”