Position Breakdown: Linebackers — 2020 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 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 linebackers, which will once again have to replace all of its starters.

WHO’S OUT

  • Andrew Armstrong: Armstrong started the first 11 games of the season at weakside linebacker and finished on the team with 78 tackles (41 solo) and was fourth in TFL (7).
  • Lakiem Williams: Williams was named to the All-ACC Third Team after finishing third in the ACC with 110 tackles. He started all 12 games at middle linebacker and ranked 26th nationally in tackles per game (9.2).
  • Juan Wallace: Wallace entered the transfer portal in the offseason, and reunited with some of his former Syracuse coaches at Kent State. He appeared in 24 games over two seasons.
  • Kadeem Trotter: As a redshirt sophomore, Trotter saw the field in six games on special teams. He was second on the depth chart at SLB before putting his name into the transfer portal back in May.

PROJECTED STARTERS

  • Tyrell Richards (WLB): The 6-4, 234 pound linebacker seems to be a good fit for the 3-3-5 system, having spent time at outside linebacker and defensive end during his Syracuse career. He appeared in 10 games in his sophomore season, picking up 14 tackles and a sack. He was listed on the spring depth chart as the team’s starting weakside linebacker.
  • Geoff Cantin-Arku (MLB): The Canadian linebacker appeared in nine games, mostly on special teams in his true freshman season. He also possesses good size at 6-4, 228 pounds, and was listed as SU’s starting middle linebacker on the spring depth chart.
  • Steve Linton (SLB): Linton appeared in three games during his redshirt season, and is now listed atop the depth chart as the team’s strongside linebacker. He, like Richards, is a converted defensive lineman, so he possesses the requisite size (6-5, 224) for a 3-3-5 linebacker.

» Related: Breaking down Syracuse’s 2020 defensive line

WHO’S BACKING THEM UP

  • Mikel Jones: Had Syracuse kept its 4-2-5 scheme, Jones would’ve been a logical fit to start at outside linebacker. He was named to the Third-Team Freshman All-America Team by Pro Focus after he appeared in all 12 games (with four starts), while recording a freshman team-high 38 tackles. His size (6-0, 211) isn’t an ideal fit for the 3-3-5 system, but he’s far too talented as a former four-star linebacker to keep off the field. He’s currently listed as the reserve middle linebacker.
  • Lee Kpogba. Kpogba is another highly touted linebacker who appeared in 11 games in his freshman season. The 6-1, 224 pound sophomore is listed as Richards’ backup for the time being.
  • Ishmael Goulbourne: Goulbourne trained on the defensive line in his redshirt season, but was moved to outside linebacker for spring practice.

WHO’S JOINING

  • Anwar Sparrow: Sparrow was a late (and final) addition to Syracuse’s 2020 recruiting class. The Virginia native signed his NLI in April after clearing up academic issues, and the 6-1, 215 pound prospect was rated three stars by 247 Sports.
  • Stefon Thompson: The three-star linebacker from Zebulon (Va.) Vance High was an early enrollee at Syracuse, having racked up 162 tackles in his senior year. His team captured the 2019 North Carolina Class 4AA State Championship.

ANALYSIS

For the third straight season, Dino Babers is going to have a new set of starting linebackers, with only one player (Jones) with any real experience.

On top of that, Syracuse is switching to a new defensive scheme and has a new defensive coordinator (Tony White) and linebackers coach (Chris Achuff).

While Achuff certainly has impressive credentials, having most recently been defensive line coach for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, he hasn’t coached linebackers in a 3-3-5 scheme. There will be a learning curve not only with the players, but also the coaching staff.

Spring practice would’ve went a long way to smoothing out some of the rougher points of the new scheme, but the COVID-19 crisis eliminated that whole period of time. That means that the Syracuse defense, and specifically the linebackers, may be more of a work in progress by the time the season kicks off (if it does at all).

The Orange will need significant improvement from their run defense. In 2019, SU allowed 4.91 yards per carry and over 200 yards a game. No, that can’t all be pinned on the linebackers, but in White’s defense, the linebackers will be called upon even more to stop the run with one less defensive lineman on the the field.

The competition for the three starting positions should be fierce. Syracuse’s recent commitments in the 2021 class in its linebackers signal that in the future, SU will favor a bigger, stronger linebacker in the 6-4, 240 pound range. That is perhaps why Jones and Kpogba aren’t atop the depth chart despite their obvious high-upside and pedigree.

The talent is there for the linebackers to have an effective season. But there are so many factors that may lead to some early struggles as SU gets used to its new defensive style.

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Wes Cheng
About Wes Cheng 2597 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.