Position Preview: Linebacker

With plenty of depth on its side, the 2014 Syracuse linebacker group could be one of the strongest units on the roster, but it doesn’t mean young talent won’t have to step up. CuseNation.com previews the position before fall camp begins.

Syracuse has been an up-and-down defensive program over the last few years, but one of its strongest position units has been the linebacking corps. It loses Marquis Spruill, who was third on the team in tackles a season ago, heading into 2014, but a solid mix of experience and youth is expected to make the group one of the more consistent ones on Scott Shafer’s roster.

CuseNation.com examines prior to the start of fall camp.

Current Depth Chart

Starters: Dyshawn Davis (outside), Marqez Hodge (middle), Cameron Lynch (outside).

Reserves: Josh Kirkland, Luke Arciniega, Zaire Franklin, Jonathan Thomas, Oliver Vigille, Alryk Perry and others.

The Incumbents

Davis and Lynch return not only as starters, but as senior leaders for the group. Davis has become a more balanced defender over the last two seasons, though timing blitzes and penetrating is still his best asset. He was fourth on the team in tackles in 2013, third among starting linebackers, with his usual solid tackle for loss and sack numbers to boot. Lynch was on the strong side a season ago, leading the group in tackles and trailing only Durell Eskridge on the roster. He was a menace behind the line of scrimmage, always stout against the run, with a dozen stops for negative yardage and he even had a pair of interceptions to his name. While Davis needs to progress as a pass defender, Lynch’s primary goal could be his play in space, especially in going against several wide open offenses in the ACC like that of Clemson, Duke and others.

Hodge, Kirkland and Arciniega each saw limited action in 2013, each showing promise in at least one area. Hodge flashed mostly on special teams and in passing situations, Kirkland as a penetrator, and Arciniega as a stout interior tackler. Of course, each will be expected to take the next step with an increased role within the unit for 2014.

Breakout Potential

Spruill is a big loss in the middle, and considering how it’s seemingly Hodge’s job to lose, he has the best shot at breaking out among last season’s reserves. Coming out of high school, he was a tackling machine destined to play tackle-to-tackle in the middle of a 4-3 defense. While it took some time, and a flirtation or two on the outside, the bulked up 216-pounder is back home in the middle and poised to prove his worth.

Not only will he have starter’s pressure if he holds onto the job throughout camp, but he has upperclassmen behind him at several levels should he slip up, so the sense of urgency combined with his talent and experience should help fuels his rise. Hodge is an instinctive player that understands angles and leverage, but he needs to be able to play better in space if he is to be a consistent starter in the ACC. Should he achieve that goal and remain healthy, there’s no reason why Hodge cannot be in the running for the breakout player not only at the second level, but of the entire defensive unit.

Freshman Impact

Zaire Franklin is listed as the primary, pre-camp backup to Cameron Lynch and it’s not so hard to see why. He was all-in with Syracuse throughout his recruitment, often mingling with current players while on trips, so expectations have been high since he pledged Orange more than a year ago. He has bulked up since high school, so his prep range mixes in nicely with a bigger frame to form a strongside ‘backer that could become a staple for the unit for years to come.

The interesting trend with the linebacker group is the depth. Franklin is the only frosh expected to make an impact on defense, but Jonathan Thomas and Colton Moskal aren’t far behind. If their impact won’t be on defense, one would have to think that special teams could be where these 2014 talents flash the fastest.

Most Important Player

Davis gets the nod. He and Lynch are the senior leaders within the unit, but Davis has the chance to be an All-ACC defender and the Orange will need that if it is to have a successful season. That not only means helping young guys like Hodge to come along, but staying healthy and making an impact on all three downs. There’s no doubting his role as a blitzer and on the edge, but can Davis shed blocks and stand up backs in the hole? Can he hold his own as a weak-side pass defender in space and maybe run with a tight end? Those secondary items will define the end of Davis’ run in orange and blue.

Should Davis improve in multiple areas, there’s no reason he can’t be the primary force offensive coordinators first plan for. Should that be the case, the SU defense would not only rest within the top-half of the ACC, but it could help propel the team to an improvement from its initial ACC campaign.

Projected Starters

It’s chalk, for now, with Davis and Lynch expected to start on the outside and Hodge in the middle. Arciniega and Vigille may push the sophomore through camp, but he seems ready to take the next step and man the middle in Spruill’s absence. However, expect a rotation from Shafer and company to help ease the load for each of the starters, especially with considerable experience returning to the fold in 2014.

There will be a lot of questions on the Syracuse roster in the next month or so, but linebacker should be towards the back-end of any list. Experience, depth and leadership should make the group as steady as any.

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