What will Syracuse get out of its linebackers? — 2019 Syracuse Football preview

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

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.

» Related: Can Syracuse repeat 2017 by upsetting Clemson?

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.”

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Wes Cheng
About Wes Cheng 2466 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.