There has been a lot of chatter about the number of scholarship players on the offensive line during this offseason, as well as guesses at which five of those players will start at which positions and if the Syracuse football coaching staff can replace Willie Tyler, the Texas transfer who recently left the program.
The offensive line being a point of interest makes perfect sense. The unit has been a weak point of the last couple campaigns, as it struggled with injuries, inexperience, continuity, and everything else that cascades down from being a banged-up line.
So, while Tyler’s departure hurts the team from both pedigree and numbers standpoints, no one knows how he would have actually played or, frankly, if he would have played for the Orange. Also, Tyler’s departure still leaves five players with starting experience on SU’s offensive line.
Dakota Davis has 15 starts at guard in the last two campaigns while Matthew Bergeron has started the last 16 games at tackle. Two-year starter Carlos Vettorello returns after opening every game last season at center, and Airon Servais, who has started 48 games at SU already, split time between center and tackle in each of the last two seasons. Mix in Chris Bleich, who started eight games for a Florida team ranked in the top ten nationally in 2019 before his season ended due to injury.
So, inexperience is probably not a viable excuse for the Orange this time around. And, hopefully, these five have already been identified as the starting group, especially because their individual experience fills out the five spots across the line.
I mention this because it seems like the last couple of training camps, it seems like the word “cross-training” has been used a lot to find “the best five” or “the best lineup”. As a result, guys get flipped around and lose reps at the spot they are best suited to play in order to get snaps at a different spot.
The whole unit also misses the opportunity to build continuity and trust. That continuity is a big part of offensive line play, as evidenced by recent results of Syracuse football, and not just in how things have gone sideways the last two seasons.
In 2017, SU went just 4-8, but upset Clemson at home and threatened a pair of nationally-ranked teams, LSU and Miami, on the road, falling in the late minutes. The same group of five started every game for that team: Cody Conway, Aaron Roberts, Aaron Servais, Evan Adams, and Jamar McGloster.
2018 was the best year for Orange football in a generation, as the team went 10-3. And, once again, a collective group was responsible for the work up front as Conway, Roberts, Servais, Adams, and Koda Martin were the starting five for 12 of 13 contests. Adams broke the perfect mark for the group up by missing one game against FCS opponent Wagner.
There is a lot of chatter about how Eric Dungey carried the team in those two campaigns, but those six guys who did most of the blocking for him in that time had a lot to say about his success. They also went on to some post-graduate success, especially in comparison to most SU football players, as four of them have spent time playing professional football.
Conway is currently on the Denver Broncos’ roster and previously spent time with the Green Bay Packers. Martin spent a year on the Los Angeles Chargers’ injured reserve and is now with the Arizona Cardinals. Adams spent time on the Baltimore Ravens’ roster last season and McGloster appeared on the roster of the then-Oakland Raiders and Chargers in 2019 before settling into the CFL.
You would be very hard-pressed to find another position group at Syracuse in recent seasons that sent four players onto NFL rosters over a two-year span.
But, even while those players had individual traits that propelled them to the next level, they also logged lots of time together on the field, whether the air-conditioned turf of game day, on the road against ACC foes, or even the practice field during a summer workout.
Hopefully, SU’s five returning starters will get a chance to do so again this season. They may not be individually talented as the players in that group, but a chance to prepare as a unit may help them develop and help shake off the doldrums that have plagued the offensive line over the last two seasons.