“That’s crazy talk,” you’re surely saying right now. All offseason, all anyone was talking about was how young and inexperienced and thin the defensive line was going to be in 2016. And yes, those things are all still true. So how the hell can I project it to be a possible strength?
It’s easy, really. One of the biggest issues heading into the season was that Syracuse has good depth and talent at defensive tackle, but there are only so many reps to go around. When the depth chart came out, there were some people surprised to see Chris Slayton, considered by some to be the best lineman on the Syracuse roster, opening the year playing on the outside.
To me, it’s a pretty brilliant move, and solves a couple of major concerns. Now, you have to remember, Chris Slayton was originally recruited to Syracuse as a defensive end. He came into the program as a lean pass rusher, only bulking up and getting more powerful as he transitioned to the interior. Yeah, he spent all of last season as an interior lineman, but he’s still one of the quickest players in the group.
And at 6-foot-5, 296 pounds, he’s got phenomenal size (and make no mistake, it’s 296 pounds of good weight). Moving him to the outside first solves the problem of getting an experienced edge rusher, while also enabling Brian Ward to play his three best lineman on virtually every important snap, at the same time.
If Slayton had stayed inside (and it should be noted, he’ll likely spend some time on the inside this season as well, depending on how well the younger players are coming along), you’d be faced with a touch situation. It’s clear that Slayton, Kayton Samuels, and Steven Clark are not only the best, but also most experienced players on the defensive line. Had Slayton stayed inside, you’re handicapping yourself. Like I said – there are only so many reps to go around.
This defense has some serious question marks heading into 2016, but there’s certainly some talent. What good does it to the team when you’re running out there with one of your best players on the sideline for more than half of the snaps? Slayton sliding outside solves this problem immediately. Now, you’ve got all three of your top defensive linemen on the field at once. You’re putting all of your best guys on the field for the majority of the opposing team’s offensive plays.
It’s also enabling Brian Ward to bring his young defensive ends a long a little more slowly (Kendall Coleman, one of the stars of fall camp, notwithstanding). Guys who haven’t gotten any game action at this level can be eased into the rotation a little more, with Jake Pickard and the true freshmen no longer having as much pressure on them to perform from the jump. Yes, obviously they’ll need to contribute. But with Slayton manning one end of the line, less should be expected of them.
Now obviously, I’m not expecting the defensive line to suddenly be a dominant force out there. That’s an unfair expectation. But with Ward making sure each of is top three linemen – and a very promising rookie – are on the field, don’t be surprised to see that unit put together a very solid year.