Syracuse football 2023 defensive line: No longer a question mark, SU’s front has chance to shine

Syracuse, N.Y. — Entering last year’s fall camp, no one was quite sure how Syracuse football’s defensive line was going to fare. The Orange had lost five players off its 2021 depth chart. The two that remained, Caleb Okechukwu and Terry Lockett, hadn’t played more than a max of 258 snaps in a season and only had two starts between them. The defense had surged into being among the best in the country in its second season employing the 3-3-5 scheme under former coordinator Tony White, finishing No. 19 in the country, but was about to undergo a transition up front. While SU’s defensive line certainly wasn’t perfect last year — its run defense graded out at No. 93 in the country per Pro Football Focus — it did exceed the expectations many had entering the 2022 season. Okechukwu is back for his final season, now with over 1,000 snaps under his belt, along with Kevon Darton, the former walk-on who emerged as Syracuse’s starting tackle after Lockett was injured in late September. Lockett returns and is expected to be back at full health by the start of fall camp. Also returning from injury is Chase Simmons, who was listed behind Okechukwu on the Week 1 depth chart but then suffered a lower-body injury three weeks into the season. The Orange had a host of younger players see playing time amid the injuries, and others return with more experience: Denis Jaquez Jr., Kevin Jobity Jr., Francois Nolton Jr., Elijah Fuentes-Cundiff, Belizaire Bassette and Solvay’s Elijah Wright. Then there are the newcomers, all of whom seem like they could be poised for quick contribution: Braylen Ingraham, the fifth-year transfer from Alabama, and true freshmen David Omopariola, Jalil Smith, Rashard Perry and Ty Godron. Ingraham, Omopariola and Smith were on campus this spring. The D-line did lose two of last year’s main contributors, Steve Linton and Jatius Geer, in the transfer portal. Linton transferred to Texas Tech after the 2022 season, and Geer transferred to South Carolina in the spring. Caleb Okechukwu poses as he walks into Syracuse spring practice April 13. Okechukwu will be one of the anchors of this year's defensive line in his final season of college ball. Dennis Nett | dnett@syracuse.com Last year, the defensive line tied with Duke for last in the ACC in Phil Steele’s preseason unit rankings in his annual preview magazine. This year, the group is up to No. 10 tied with Virginia Tech and Boston College. From the first six games of the season to the last seven, SU’s defense dropped nearly 10 points in overall defense per PFF from 73.2% to 63.7%. It also dropped 7.5 points in run defense but only 2.5 in pass rushing. The struggles on run defense during the back half of the season (stacked with ACC opponents with some of the strongest rushing offenses in the country) are even more evident when looking at the yards allowed. The Orange’s first six opponents of the season amassed only 570 yards collectively. The back seven opponents had 1,308. SU’s biggest rushing tests will come Week 4 against Army, Week 5 against Clemson and Week 7 against Florida State. Though Army is making some changes to its offensive scheme under new offensive coordinator Drew Thatcher, it returns its top four running backs who helped power it to the No. 2 rushing offense in the country last year. While the new offense is set to incorporate more passing, it’s unlikely the Black Knights will drop their rushing game entirely. Clemson and Florida State both return their starting running backs from 2022 — Will Shipley and Trey Benson, respectively — and are projected to be the top two ACC RB units. Last season, the running backs from each program put up a combined 438 rushing yards against the Orange. One of the criticisms of Syracuse’s defensive line last year was that it was small. SU’s top four linemen (Okechukwu, Darton, Geer and Linton) averaged 6-foot, 3.5-inches and 246 pounds. Clemson’s top four, by comparison, averaged the same height but had 30 extra pounds on them. Syracuse added a nutritionist to the program this offseason who got early rave reviews from the team during spring camp — “I think it’s something that’s gonna help us be that much better for real,” Okechukwu said at the time. The defensive line could be the group to benefit most from that addition if they put on a few more pounds. The official 2023 roster with updated heights and weights has not yet been released. While SU’s linebacking group has a bit higher expectations of it this season and is expected to be the hallmark of the defense, the D-line could really shine. Okechukwu and Darton both are poised to be leaders for the entire defensive group and have 13 games of experience playing side-by-side. Lockett’s return will be welcome, along with Simmons’, and because of those injuries even the youngest of returning players hold game experience many wouldn’t at their ages. There are going to be some tests, but the D-line should be able to bring home some better grades this year.

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