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 Syracuse’s 2022 defensive line.
There’s no way around it- the defensive line group is a position of concern heading into the 2022 season.
Syracuse had an above average group last year, ranking 26th in the nation in rushing yards allowed with 126.1 ypg, tied for 30th with 37 sacks, and 29th with 6.8 tackles-for-loss per game. That group was led by Kingsley Jonathan, Josh Black, McKinley Williams, and Cody Roscoe. All four players- among others- are gone, having moved on to the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts, and Arizona Cardinals respectively.
Though lacking a true NFL starter-caliber talent, those players all punched their ticket as undrafted free agents(though Roscoe at this point remains unsigned, having only participated in a minicamp tryout), and they were good enough to be competitive at the college level. The players left on Syracuse’s roster are frankly unknown commodities at this point, having very few game snaps between them. You have to expect the coaching staff has an ace or two up their sleeve via the transfer portal, but here’s the depth chart as I see it so far in June:
- Defensive End- Caleb Okechukwu 6’4” 269 pounds
- Defensive Tackle- Terry Lockett 6’3” 264 pounds
- Defensive End- Steve Linton 6’5” 217 pounds
- DE- Francois Nolton Jr. 6’4” 240 pounds/ Denis Jaquez, Jr 6’4” 229 pounds
- DT- Kevon Darton 5’11” 268 pounds
- DE- Chase Simmons 6’4” 253 pounds/ Jatius Geer 6”6” 243 pounds
Syracuse runs a 3-3-5 defense and as such I just listed the starters and reserves at each position. In reality, the outside linebackers will play along the line based on the alignment, but we will cover those players in the linebacker positional breakdown.
Okechukwu is the elder statesman of the group, going into his fifth year with the team as a redshirt junior. He’s played in 24 games and has 35 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, and two sacks, pacing every other player’s stats at the position- so you can see what we’re working with here. His experience has him locked into a starting role, likely on the strong-side.
Lockett appeared in 11 games last year and gathered two sacks out of it, which is promising. He’s a tall defensive tackle at 6’3” and had four interceptions and a blocked kick in high school, which shows he knows how to take advantage of his size in his play. There’s not much competition for his spot so he easily slots in at DT.
Linton is a player I’m excited about. His weight makes him more of a weak-side/off ball linebacker at just 217 pounds, but I’d be willing to bet the coaches make him bulk up throughout the summer so he can play more as a pass rusher given how thin they’re stretched at the position. He’s a bit tall at 6’5” for a linebacker so I’d like to see him use that length and speed to bend around tackles and start collecting sacks. He feels like a player that is going to make the most of this opportunity for more playing time.
As for the reserves, Nolton is a name to watch coming up from Miami, Florida as a true freshman. He’s a three star prospect according to Rivals, has near perfect size for a college pass rusher, and had 25 sacks in his senior year. This kid could crack the starting lineup sooner rather than later.
Jaquez is another three star freshman, but with the lightest frame at 229 of his fellow defensive lineman outside of Linton. Still, he racked up 87 solo tackles, 11 sacks, an interception and four forced fumbles in his high school career so there’s a playmaking ability to like there.
Darton is a redshirt sophomore who’s seen increased playing time each year, leading up to playing in all 12 games last year. Doesn’t have the best size and his best games are a couple of two-tackle performances, but with 14 total tackles in 18 games played, he’s tenured enough to be Cuse’s primary reserve at defensive tackle.
Simmons is a former three star prospect with good size who appeared in one game last year but didn’t record a statistic. At 253 he’s the biggest end behind Okehcukwu and if Syracuse wants to go big along the line he’ll likely push Linton into a standup linebacker role, but it’s just too much of an unknown at this point in the year.
Geer is another former three star (a bit of a theme here) redshirt freshman who saw time in one game last year and nabbed a solo tackle. He’s got great size for the end position and had an incredible 40 TFL’s as a senior, but it remains to be seen what he’ll do this summer.
So looking at the group, there’s just not a bunch of actual playing time, though you can see the talent with a whole bunch of three star prospects competing for playing time. I’m honestly not as worried about this position group as I was with receivers, as defensive line is a bit easier to coach guys up at and this team has gotten good production out of less than elite talent for the last couple of years. While a drop in their production is certainly to be expected, I have faith in Dino and the rest of the coaches to squeeze every drop of potential out of this group, as well as get another body or two from the transfer portal over the next few months.