Position Breakdown: Defensive Line — 2020 Syracuse Football preview

Syracuse Orange defensive tackle Josh Black
Oct. 18, 2019; Syracuse NY, USA; Syracuse Orange defensive tackle Josh Black (85) celebrates during Syracuse's 27-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Panthers at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

As we countdown to kickoff in September, 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, which loses three starters.

WHO’S OUT

  • Brandon Berry: Berry was named the defense’s most improved player after he appeared in all 12 games in 2019 and led the Orange with 5.5 sacks. He finished his career playing in 36 games (six starts), while collecting 51 tackles (26 solo) and 6.5 sacks.
  • Kendall Coleman: Coleman went undrafted in the 2020 NFL Draft, but signed a free agent contract with the Indianapolis Colts. He was the 2019 recipient of the Bill Horr Award as Syracuse’s MVP, and finished his career with 137 tackles and 15.5 sacks.
  • Shaq Grosvenor: A reserve defensive tackle for most of his career, Grosvenor recorded four tackles in 12 games over three seasons.
  • Alton Robinson: Robinson was drafted in the fifth round of the NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks after earning All-ACC honors in two of his three seasons at Syracuse. He finished his career seventh in school history with 19.5 sacks and tied for ninth with 32.5 tackles for loss.
  • Kenneth Ruff: Ruff took over the starting defensive tackle position in 2019 after McKinley Williams got hurt in preseason camp. He finished his senior year with 26 tackles (12 solo) and two TFL.

PROJECTED STARTERS

  • Kingsley Jonathan (DE): Jonathan wasn’t listed on the spring depth chart as he recovered from an injury. But the redshirt senior is expected to be a starter at defensive end, having recorded 49 tackles and 7.5 in 33 games.
  • Josh Black (DE): Black is the line’s only returning starter from 2019. In 12 starts at nose tackle, he finished with 39 tackles, six tackles for loss and four sacks. In 37 games (25 starts) over four seasons, he’s notched 82 tackles and 5.5 sacks. He’s played both the tackle and end positions in his career.
  • McKinley Williams (DT): Williams played only three games at defensive tackle last year due to a foot injury, but is a vital piece of the defensive line. In 39 games (15 starts), he has 64 tackles (36 solo).

» Related: Breaking down Syracuse’s 2020 tight ends

WHO’S BACKING THEM UP

  • Drew Tuazama: While Jonathan was out in the spring, Tuazama was listed atop the depth chart at defensive end. Tuazama made his Syracuse debut against Holy Cross in 2019, notching a pair of tackles before sitting out the rest of the season to redshirt.
  • Caleb Okechukwu: Okechukwu also got first team reps at defensive end. He missed all of 2019 with an illness, and has appeared in one game so far in his SU career.
  • Kevon Darton: Darton, a walk-on, is listed at Williams’ primary backup at defensive tackle. He didn’t make any appearances in 2019 in his redshirt year.
  • Curtis Harper: While Darton was listed as Williams’ backup in the depth chart, that’s because the presumed backup, Harper, was out with an injury. When healthy, Harper has proved to be a solid contributor, with 14 tackles and two sacks in 12 games over the last two seasons.
  • Chris Elmore: I wrote about Elmore in my tight ends preview, but he could appear in the offensive backfield, the offensive line, and even take reps at defensive tackle. He’s played 76 snaps at defensive tackle with nine tackles.
  • Cooper Dawson: Dawson is coming off his redshirt year and didn’t appear in any games. He can play both tackle and end.
  • Zach Morton: Morton was listed in the spring depth chart as the top reserve to Josh Black. He’s appeared in four games in his career to date.
  • Jason Muñoz: Muñoz redshirted in 2019 and didn’t appear in any games. He’s listed as a defensive end backup.
  • Joe Rondi: Rondi, a defensive tackle, appeared in two games (Liberty, Holy Cross) in 2019, but didn’t record any statistics in his redshirt season.

WHO’S JOINING

  • Latarie Kinsler: Kinsler was one of SU’s top signees in the 2020 class, ranked 665th in the country according to the 247 composite. He enrolled in January, and is a three star recruit and a Florida native.
  • Josh Ilaoa: The three-star defensive tackle was rated the No. 45 player in North Carolina by ESPN.
  • Kevin Lemieux: Lemieux, an end, was rated by all of the major recruiting services as a top 10 recruit in Massachusetts.
  • Leon Lowery: The New Jersey native was the No. 33 player in New Jersey according to 247 Sports. Lowery finished with 95 tackles and 26 sacks over his final two prep seasons.

ANALYSIS

This unit, more than any other, will feature completely different personnel in 2020. Three starters (two of them with NFL talent) have moved on, though Syracuse has two defensive linemen (Williams and Black) that have starter experience.

Aside from personnel, scheme will be completely different under new coordinator Tony White, who will be implementing a 3-3-5 defense.

That means that Syracuse will only have three defensive linemen on the field at any given time. Williams at tackle and Black at end should absorb many of the snaps, but White will likely mix and match many of his linebackers and linemen at the third line position given the situation.

Jonathan being out for spring practices meant that Tuazama and Okechukwu got first team reps. Expect both of them to be in the rotation for reps, even when Jonathan is 100 percent healthy.

Perhaps we might also see linebackers with defensive line experience play at that second end spot, as well. Linebackers Tyrell Richards and Steve Linton have hybrid experience and could complement Williams’ run-stuffing ability.

Speaking of Williams, his presence was missed last year. He was viewed as an NFL prospect prior to his injury, and Syracuse certainly missed his abilities up front, struggling to stop the run.

If Williams can stay healthy, there is enough talent on the line to be effective. But there’s also plenty of uncertainty with a new defensive scheme and coordinator. This unit will be a wildcard heading into 2020.

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Wes Cheng
About Wes Cheng 2566 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.