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I don’t know if you guys are aware, but Syracuse kicks off (pun strenuously intended) fall camp on July 30. I know, I’m here breaking news for you. While a lot of Orange fans, myself included, have been focusing on the recruiting side of things, it’s time to start switching gear and focusing on the players we’ll actually be seeing on the field this year.

With that in mind, yesterday I posted a couple polls on Twitter to get a feel for which position units Orange fans were most worried about, and least worried about. When it comes to the unit that’s got cause for concern, I wasn’t overly surprised by the result. I was, however, pretty shocked at the unit that you, the fans, selected as the one that worries you least.

With that in mind, let’s dive right in with the results of yesterday’s “most worried” poll:

It’s not a particularly big shock that, especially with the recent medical disqualifications of Steven Clark and JUCO transfer Josh Allen, defensive line is the unit causing you the most concern. It’s a completely valid concern, as well, based almost exclusively on the lack of depth. It’s never easy to lose players to injury, particularly when the unit in question is already young and thin.

Syracuse struggled to apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks last year, getting just 16.0 sacks for the season (compared to 38.0 for the Orange’s opposition, which brings up the cause for concern with the offensive line). Out of those 16.0 sacks, only 7.5 came from returning defensive linemen (4.0 for Chris Slayton, 1.5 for Josh Black, 1.0 for Kendall Coleman, 1.0 for McKinley Williams). That’s not the kind of productivity the defensive line needs to deliver to help the entire defense take a big step forward this season.

Now, make no mistake, that quartet is a solid core and the addition of junior college transfer Brandon Berry, a terrific athlete who should provide some pressure off the edge, will no doubt help. But after that, depth becomes a real issue. Kayton Samuels returns to provide a bit of depth at defensive tackle, but after that the pickings are pretty slim with Clark’s career at Syracuse over. Curtis Harper, a true freshman, will almost certainly be called upon to bolster that position. Shaq Grosvenor is another JUCO transfer who will also be counted on to provide depth, as will Kenneth Ruff.

At defensive end, the group of Coleman, Black, Berry, and Jake Pickard appears solid on paper, though obviously you’d like to add more depth. Coleman and Black showed flashes of being very solid players on the defensive line as true freshmen, and now that they’ve got a full year in the program, they’ll be asked to do even more. Zach Morton is a terrific athlete with a good frame at 6-foot-4, but listed at just 220 pounds, will be be ready to compete at the ACC level? The same can be asked about Kingsley Jonathan.

Now, on the other hand, there are some positions we can feel pretty good about heading into the 2017 campaign. But the one that Syracuse fans chose as the unit they’re least worried about did surprise me:

I’m about as big an Eric Dungey fan as there is, and I respect the hell out of Zack Mahoney. Rex Culpepper and Tommy DeVito are, of course, obviously untested, and Clayton Welch has prototypical size but is a bit of a mystery as a walk-on, JUCO transfer.

This is a group that, for me, is entirely about “if.” If Eric Dungey can remain healthy, then yes, I agree with the idea that QB won’t be a position that has much cause for concern. But if Syracuse fans should have learned anything over the past few seasons, it’s that this is a major if at this position in general. Think about all of the quarterbacks Syracuse has run through since Ryan Nassib graduated.

Dungey himself has never played more than 8 full games in a season due to injury, and while there is the thought he could have returned last season, the same team doctor that’s seemed a bit trigger happy on DQ’s and who kept Dungey out of those games is still calling the medical shots at Syracuse. There’s no guarantee that Dungey will be on the field for all 12 (hopefully 13) games.

In particular, he’ll need a big step forward from his offensive line to keep him upright. As I mentioned above, Syracuse fans were sacked 38.0 times last year, including 22.0 times for Dungey in his eight (and some change) games. That number has to come way down for Syracuse fans to even begin to feel confident that the talented signal caller will make it through the year intact.

For me, I likely would have leaned toward linebacker or wide receiver as the position that’s in the best shape on this Syracuse team, simply because there aren’t any big, scary, injury-shaped clouds hanging over them. Linebacker is perhaps the deepest unit on the team, particularly with the addition of Austin Valdez, the former Bowling Green starter and All-MAC honoree who, in his one season under Brian Ward, racked up an incredible 144 tackles.

Zaire Franklin, Parris Bennett, and Valdez are the probable starters, backed up by Andrew Armstrong, Jonathan Thomas, and some combination of Shy Cullen, Kielan Whitner, Troy Henderson, and potentially some combination of true freshmen like Nadarius Fagan and Tyrell Richards (my guess is that Kadeem Trotter, at just 185 pounds, will redshirt… and hopefully with this depth, Fagan and Richards will be enabled to redshirt as well).

That’s a deep, potentially very good unit, and arguably the best linebacker unit that Syracuse has had in years, probably since the starting trio of Marquis Spruill, Cam Lynch, and Dyshawn Davis.

With all of that in mind, here’s my ranking of positional units for Syracuse as we head into 2017, from the one I’m least concerned about, to the most.

  1. Linebacker
  2. Wide Receiver
  3. Quarterback
  4. Running Back
  5. Secondary
  6. Offensive Line
  7. Defensive Line

I could probably be talked into flipping receiver and QB, or even the OL and the secondary. But for me, it’s clear that for the reasons outlined above, the front seven is going to be an interesting dynamic, with the line either needing to step up this season and carry a larger part of the load, or the linebackers needing to pick up the slack. A defensive unit is incredibly symbiotic, with the line only as good as the secondary, the secondary only as good as the line, the linebackers only as good as the line, and so on.

But it all starts in the trenches, and this Syracuse team will only go as far as its offensive and defensive lines take it.

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