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 discussing three major storylines around the offensive line.
The numbers weren’t pretty for the Orange offense line at any level. They were the second worst rated offensive line according to Pro Football Focus in 2020, and gave up an average of 3.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss per game.
Syracuse coach Dino Babers addressed these shortcomings in the offseason, with the addition of two key transfers, the eligibility of one other, and the arrival of five freshmen. Plus, with the exception of Qadir White, who entered the transfer portal earlier in spring, every player and contributor from last year returns.
That means that Babers will have some intriguing options to mix and match as fall approaches.
Four of the unit’s five starters from last year return: Matthew Bergeron, Dakota Davis, Carlos Vetterello, and Airon Servias. The only starter not to return is Chris Elmore, but that’s because with the added depth, Elmore, a natural fullback/tight end is moving back to his natural position.
Syracuse also added JUCO transfer Jakob Bradford and Texas transfer Willie Tyler in the offseason, and Chris Bleich, a Florida transfer, is finally eligible after sitting out 2020.
Of the five freshmen, Enrique Cruz Jr. has drawn the most headlines. He was a top-25 tackle in his class, and a top 250 recruit, one of the highest Babers has snagged in his tenure with Syracuse. He is joined by Hawaiians Kalan Ellis and Austyn Kauhi, and Wes Hoeh and Tyler Magnuson.
In all, there are more than 20 offensive lineman listed on Syracuse’s roster now.
A NEW COACH
Syracuse certainly needed a change in its coaching ranks following its disastrous 2020 campaign. Mike Cavanaugh left for Arizona State in January, and the Orange replaced him with San Diego State offensive line coach Mike Schmidt.
Schmidt, involved with the Aztecs program since 2012, had molded its rushing attack into one of the best in college football, with SDSU ranking 15th nationally in rushing yards per carry (5.0), 15th in rushing yardage per game (216.9) and tied for 21st in rushing touchdowns (201) during that time period.
The offensive line unit has immediately taken to Schmidt’s coaching so far, especially when it comes to film study.
“Coach Schmidt came in and on the first day we watched film,” Bergeron said. “I liked his new approach. Everyone is just following him and we trust him. He made us a better unit in 14 practices so I’m glad to work with him.”
Babers was cagey the entire spring, and decided against releasing a depth chart.
Even with four starters returning, there’s no guarantee that they return to their starting roles, or that they even return to the same position.
Servais had success as a center on the 2018 team that won 10 games before he moved to tackle the last two seasons, and struggled with injuries. Vetterello, who has done a similar position switch from tackle to center, also has versatility there. With the arrival of Tyler and Bradford, does Syracuse move him back to the interior line?
Other questions to ponder: With Bleich eligible, does he take over the starting guard spot vacated by Elmore? Five freshmen are arriving, but do any of them see any meaningful snaps in 2021? Can Syracuse actually have an ACC-level line this year that can protect the quarterbacks and open up the run game?
Here’s my projection of what the starters will look like:
- LT: Willie Tyler
- LG: Dakota Davis
- C: Carlos Vetterello
- RG: Chris Bleich
- RT: Airon Servias
The fact that there are two players with starting experience (in this case, it would be Bergeron and Bradford) that will not start speaks to how improved this unit will be this fall.