The Syracuse University football team was always going to be thin on the defensive line heading into the 2015 season, but then news hit that talented rising junior Isaiah Johnson’s career is going to have to come to an end due to having suffered too many concussions over the course of his career. It’s horrible to see a kid’s dream come to a screeching halt, and it also spells trouble for the Orange heading into the fall.
The question at this point becomes, who is going to step up and contribute along the line? And frankly, will the Orange have enough talent up front to have a complete 2-deep that the coaches will trust enough to actually go eight players deep?
Heading into the year, the clear leader on the defensive line will be Ron Thompson, whose nickname, “Sugar Bear,” just doesn’t get used nearly enough. The former 4-star tight end prospect has transitioned nicely to being a disruptive defensive end over the course of his career, and should be in the running for All-ACC accolades during his junior campaign.
But after Thompson, things get a little dicier. Yes, there’s talent, and there are a few players who have gotten significant snaps. But there aren’t many. Two players with a ton of size and talent, but who have yet to really live up to their potential, are John Raymon and Wayne Williams. Raymon was a highly touted defensive tackle who started his career at Iowa before transferring to SU, and has struggled to keep his weight in check. At 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds, he’s an enormous and imposing figure on the line with better athleticism than you’d expect from such a big man. Yet last season he registered just six tackles while playing in fewer than half of the team’s games.
Wayne Williams is another big, athletic body who Syracuse fans have been waiting to see break out. At 6-foot-4, 326 pounds he’s nearly identical in terms of size to his fellow tackle Raymon, and the pair could combine to create a formidable duo in the middle of the line. But like Raymon, Williams failed to really produce last year, making nine tackles in limited action. Both will have to step it up, or else they’ll be jumped on the depth chart either by a returning, younger player, or one of the talented incoming defensive linemen that were a part of the recruiting class of 2015.
Marcus Coleman and Donnie Simmons are two of the more experienced returners, in terms of having been around the program for a few years. Yet like Raymon and Williams, they’ve never really produced on the field. Coleman made just six tackles, while Simmons – who has battled some injuries off and on throughout his career – had just two tackles all year.
Three returning names to keep an eye on are Kayton Samuels, Chris Slayton, and Luke Arciniega. Samuels, a 6-foot, 319 pound nose tackle, and Slayton, a 6-foot-4, 267 pound defensive end are both talented young players who could work their way onto the field. Slayton in particular has the right combination of size and athleticism to become an impact player on the edge.
Speaking of edge rushers, the best thing possible for Luke Arciniega – other than being granted two more years by the NCAA – is being moved from linebacker to defensive end. The 6-foot-4, 240 pounder was a little too slow to compete at linebacker, but he’s got great size and his quickness could potentially make him an immediate impact player rushing from the edge of the defensive line. Don’t be surprised to see him become a key member of the D-line rotation.
And now that brings us to the freshman class, which features a proverbial boatload of defensive line talent. It’s pretty clear that the coaching staff recognized how thin the line would be, even before the loss of Johnson, and made sure to stock up on big, athletic bodies. The big names are Jake Pickard and Steven Clark, who turned down the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida to come to Syracuse. Other names to watch out for are Ty Cross at defensive tackle, as well as Qaadir Sheppard and Amir Ealey at defensive end. If anyone is going to break through and play as a true freshman, it’s more than likely going to be someone from that group.
In particular, Pickard and Clark look to be virtual locks to earn playing time this season. Pickard, a defensive end, has great size at 6-foot-6, and recently pushed his weight up to 240 pounds. He recently mentioned to me that he plans on getting up over 250 before the summer is over. Clark, meanwhile, is already a workout warrior, and has competed for state powerlifting championships. One of the biggest hurdles for a lot of young defensive tackles is getting physically ready for the pounding you’re going to take on a daily basis from going against offensive linemen who have been in college strength and conditioning programs for two or three years. Clark shouldn’t have that problem, and I don’t expect him to get bullied by opposing offensive linemen very much.
Everything about a strong defense is symbiotic, and it all starts up front. It’s especially important for the defensive line and defensive backs to work in tandem – with the defensive line putting enough pressure on the quarterback that he has to get rid of the ball early, meaning the DBs aren’t chasing receivers around the field for more than a few seconds, while the defensive backs need to blanket receivers long enough to give the linemen a chance to get to and punish the quarterback.
Unfortunately for Syracuse both units are pretty thin and inexperienced heading into 2015, but there’s clearly a lot of young talent. How well the Orange defense plays this year will depend largely on how quickly the young players can come of age and adapt to the college game.