Yesterday, I put it to a public vote to determine (oh so scientifically) what the best units – at least as things stand right now, and on paper – are for the Syracuse football team as we head into 2016. After 147 votes for offense and 119 for defense (a wide voting gap that shows people are a lot more intrigued by scoring points than the prevention of them), the results are in.
On defense, you all voted overwhelmingly that the linebackers are the strength of the defense. And honestly, this one does seem like a bit of a no-brainer. That’s not taking away from the young talent at the other positions, but it’s abundantly clear that linebacker is both the most experienced and deepest unit on the team.
Which is Syracuse football's best unit on defense heading into 2016?
— OttosGrove.com (@OttosGrove) July 16, 2016
Syracuse returns five linebackers who saw significant action last year, led by captain Zaire Franklin. The All-ACC hopeful led the Orange with 81 tackles a year ago, while the team’s third leading tackler, Parris Bennett, also returns after making 44 stops a year ago. Marqez Hodge made 41 tackles and Jonathan Thomas made 34, while Ted Taylor had 27 stops.
That’s not even getting into some of the younger talent in the linebacking corps, either. Troy Henderson and Shy Cullen are both in line for significant snaps this season, and true freshmen Andrew Armstrong (OLB) and Tim Walton (ILB) could both find their way onto the field in the team’s new Tampa 2 defense. Needless to say, this is as deep a unit as there is on the roster, on either side of the ball.
Over on offense, however, things were a heck of a lot tighter. It was nearly a three way tie between a trio of units, but in the end, you all decided that the running backs look to be the best overall unit on offense. But only just barely.
Which is Syracuse football's best unit on offense heading into 2016?
— OttosGrove.com (@OttosGrove) July 16, 2016
First of all, you have to feel for the offensive line. No one ever gives much thought to the O-line, which is admittedly home to a few big question marks heading into the fall. There’s potential there to turn the line into a solid unit, which will be essential in protecting Eric Dungey and opening things up for the running game.
Speaking of that running game, while the Dino Babers offense is known for putting up huge amounts of passing yards, you guys believe that running the football may be the team’s strength. I credit this in large part to the fact that after Dungey, there are some question marks at QB, making that unit lag slightly behind the RBs.
But there’s definitely talent and potential at running back. Last year, Jordan Fredericks emerged as a terrific runner as a true freshman. He paced the offense with 607 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Still, he came out of the spring behind Dontae Strickland on the depth chart.
Strickland is an explosive player who showed flashes of being a game breaker as a true freshman last season. He only had 21 carries last season, averaging 3.9 yards per carry, but proved a playmaker in the passing game. Strickland caught nine passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns, averaging better than 15 yards per catch. That’s made more impressive when you remember most of those catches were short passes he turned into big gains with his outstanding quickness and agility.
Strickland became a favorite of the staff’s in the spring, particularly as Fredericks works to get himself back into shape for this new, high octane offense. The running back unit is also bolstered by true freshman Moe Neal.
Neal is perhaps the most high profile freshman in this year’s class for Syracuse, boasting elite speed (he’s been laser timed at 4.39 seconds in the 40) and quickness. He was recruited as a hybrid, and originally seemed destined for the slot but spent all spring in the backfield. He emerged from the spring as the third player on the RB depth chart.
While Neal still needs to get stronger to take the pounding he’ll receive in Division I football, he’s the kind of third down back who can come in and be a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. He’s a dynamic player who, by all accounts, looked sensational in the spring game. Syracuse hasn’t had a runner with his level of quickness in a very long time.
Rounding out the running backs is George Morris, the elder statesman of the group. Morris finished third on the team in rushing last year, behind Fredericks and Dungey. He amassed 326 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry, and showed flashes of being a dependable runner against some stiff competition. He gained 80 yards on 14 carries against Clemson, and 55 yards on just six totes against Florida State.
Basically, I’ll sum up this position like this: if George Morris is the fourth running back on your depth chart, you’re probably in pretty good shape in that area. He’s not quite the runner we all hoped he’d be when he came to Syracuse and drew raves from the last coaching staff, but he’s a workhorse who will go and gain you some tough yards against high level opponents.
Offense was certainly a tougher call than defense when it comes to determining the top unit on each side of the ball, but I don’t know that I can argue too much with the results. There’s talent at wide receiver, for sure, but not enough of a disparity between that position and the RBs for me to put up too much of an argument.
The bottom line is that, at the end of the day, I think we can all agree there are some pieces in place to put some points on the board this season in the Babers offense. How successful the team is overall will likely hinge on which defensive units can rise to the occasion and meet the level of production of the linebackers.