Position Breakdown: Linebackers — 2021 Syracuse Football preview

Syracuse linebacker Mikel Jones
Syracuse linebacker Mikel Jones speaks with reporters via Zoom.

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 linebackers.

Projected Starters

Weak-side Linebacker: Mikel Jones. Jones emerged as a force as a full-time starter as a sophomore, finishing with Honorable Mention All-ACC Honors. he finished tops in the ACC for interceptions for a linebacker (4) and had eight takeaways, the most by any individual player in the FBS. He also led Syracuse in tackling (69).

Middle Linebacker: Geoff Cantin-Arku. Another stellar sophomore in the linebacking core, Cantin-Arku finished fourth on the team with 63 tackles, and led the Syracuse defense with 4.0 sacks. The Canadian linebacker also forced a pair of fumbles.

Strong-side Linebacker: Stefon Thompson. Thompson rounds out a talented, and youthful starting linebacker group. In his true freshman season, Thompson earned the starting position, finishing with seven starts while appears in 10 games. He finished with 35 tackles, 7.5 TFL and 3.0 sacks and was named to the Freshman All-American Team by the Football Writers Association of America.

Key Reserves

Marlowe Wax: Wax proved to be a key member of the linebacker group in his true freshman season, as he appeared in all 11 games with a start at linebacker. He finished with 33 tackles and three sacks and could potentially earn a starting spot.

Steve Linton: The redshirt freshman and converted defensive end was part of the linebacker rotation, seeing action in eight games, including one as a starter. He finsiehd with 15 tackles.

Leon Lowery: A high school defensive lineman out of New Jersey, Lowery saw the field for three games as a linebacker in 2020.

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

Who’s Out

  • Tyrell Richards: Richards was named the team’s most outstanding special teams in 2019 and was a steady contributor as a reserve linebacker since his arrival in 2017. In 2020, he appeared in eight games with three starts at outside linebacker and finished with 24 tackles. But Richards entered the transfer portal in April.
  • Lee Kpogba (possibly): Depending on what recruiting service you follow, Kpogba was Syracuse’s top recruit in the 2019 class, and was rated four-stars coming out of North Carolina. But he was suspended indefinitely in February, and it’s not clear whether the reserve linebacker will return to the Orange in the fall. He’s appeared in 22 games at SU, recording 44 tackles. Interestingly, he appeared to be on a recruiting trip to Ole’ Miss in June, though his name was not in the transfer portal.

» Related: Breaking down Syracuse’s matchup with Pitt

Who’s In

Syracuse added three linebackers in its 2021 class, with three-star prospects Derek McDonald, Malik Matthew and Austin Roon joining the Orange. One thing is clear in Tony White’s 3-3-5 scheme: he wants bigger, stronger linebackers without an extra lineman on the field. All three are 6’3″ or taller, and weigh 220 pounds or more.

Quick Takes

  • There was a period of three straight seasons under Dino Babers where he saw an entirely different group of starting linebackers. That streak finally ends in 2021, with the return of nearly every major contributor from 2020. The continuity turns Syracuse’s most questionable unit heading into 2020 into one of SU’s strongest units heading into this season. The 3-3-5 scheme requires the linebackers to be the most dynamic group, and that’s exactly what they were in 2020, with Jones leading the Orange in interceptions. The best part is, the group is young, and will likely have continuity again for 2022.
  • Still, there is room for improvement with the linebackers. With only three linemen on the field, it is often up to the linebackers to pressure the quarterback. And while the LBs did account for 12 sacks and 16 hurries, that number should continue to climb with an experienced front three returning. Jones should continue his ascension into one of the ACC’s top linebackers, and if Kpogba returns, SU will have plenty of depth at the position.

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About Wes Cheng 2679 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.