Position Breakdown: Defensive Line — 2021 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 breaking down Syracuse’s defensive line.

Projected Starters

Defensive End: Josh Black. Black is back for his sixth season, and has started every game over the past two seasons. Last year, he finished with 28 tackles, and 4.0 for a loss.

Defensive Tackle: McKinley Williams. Williams is another sixth-year starter returning for the Orange that has made 26 starts in the 50 games he’s appeared in Orange. He started all 11 games last year and finished with 35 tackles and a sack.

Defensive End: Kingsley Jonathan. It’s hard to imagine that a fifth-year senior would be the least experienced of the group, but that’s exactly what Jonathan is. The Campbell Trophy Semifinalist finished with 32 tackles and 3.0 sacks, and enters 2021 as an All-ACC Second Team Preseason Selection by ESPN’s David Hale. He was limited in spring due to an injury, but if he’s healthy in the fall he’ll be the starter.

Projected Two-Deep Reserves

Defensive End: Caleb Okechukwu. While Syracuse didn’t release a depth chart this spring, you’d think that Okechukwu, a redshirt sophomore, would be on it. After missing all of 2019 with an illness, he appeared in all 11 games in 2020, making 14 tackles and adding a sack.

Defensive Tackle: Curtis Harper. Harper appeared in 11 games last season, predominantly at nose tackle. He’s appeared in 23 games and is a redshirt senior with two years of eligibility left.

Defensive End: Cody Roscoe. Roscoe transferred to Syracuse from McNeese State in 2020, and was a part of the defensive line rotation. He finished with 20 tackles and also had a forced fumble and fumble recovery.

» Related: A look at Syracuse football’s running backs in 2021

Who’s Out

With Syracuse switching to a 3-3-5 last year, there’s one less lineman on the field at all times, and with a highly experienced starting core coming back, it left little room for some underclassmen. As a result, Cooper Dawson, Kevin Lemieux, Zach Morton and Jason Munoz all entered the transfer portal. While none of them were expected to start, and may not have even cracked the two-deep, it still hurts the team’s depth.

Who’s In

Syracuse added four defensive linemen in its 2021 class, with three-stars Elijah Fuentes, Jatius Geer, Derek McDonald and Chase Simmons joining the Orange. A fifth, Jaelin Moss, could also join, though he didn’t sign his NLI on signing day.

Quick Takes

  • The good news is that Syracuse’s defensive line is one of the most experienced units in the country, with a combined 14 years of collegiate experience spread between three starters. The not so great news is that Black, Williams and Jonathan were decidedly average last year, contributing to a defense that yielded 4.56 yards per rush and only combined for nine sacks. Then again, with one less linemen on the field in SU’s new 3-3-5 alignment, it’s not particularly surprising, especially given that they were learning a new defense on the fly last year without the benefit of a spring camp because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • While the starters bring experience and will eat up a lot of downs, there’s still room for development among SU’s younger core. One candidate is Drew Tuazama, who as a redshirt freshman appeared in six games and blocked a punt against Clemson. The last time Syracuse had a depth chart in the spring, Jonathan was injured, and Tuazama was listed as a starter at defensive end, showing what the staff thinks of his ability. If Jonathan is not ready in the fall, it’s possible that Okechukwu could step into a starting role.

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About Wes Cheng 2907 Articles
Wes has worked for Rivals.com covering the New York Knicks, as well as for Scout.com covering Syracuse athletics. Wes has also been a contributing writer for the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), for SportsNet New York (SNY) as a news desk writer covering all of New York professional sports, 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 with a degree in journalism. Contact him at wes[at]sujuiceonline.com.