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2021 Syracuse Football Positional Preview: Linebackers

Cuse Athletics
Mikel Jones (center) celebrates with his defensive counterparts after recording an interception against 25th-ranked Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.

After the disappointing 1-10 season last year for Syracuse football, there are plenty of questions on both sides of the ball. Who’s going to be under center? What’s the word at tight end? What will the defense do in year two of the 3-3-5 defense? Something the Orange faithful don’t have to question as much is the linebackers.

As a whole, it was not pretty for the defense. SU finished dead last in the ACC in yards allowed per game with about 464. Even though the numbers were disappointing, guys like Mikel Jones, Geoff Cantin-Arku and Stefon Thompson will be back. They were a part of a linebacker room that recorded an FBS-leading 24 takeaways last season. Lee Kpogba - who made 44 tackles and appeared in every game last year - and Tyrell Richards - a redshirt junior who had 54 tackles for the Orange - won’t be back this fall. So who’s going to fill in? Can Jones, who forced an ACC-tying 4 interceptions, contribute greatly once again? Can this group show even more flashes in 2021’s campaign?

Without further ado, here is a preview of the Syracuse linebackers, a bright spot on this year on the SU team.

Mikel Jones, Junior

From top to bottom, Jones is the best linebacker in this group. The Miami native can pick off passes, force fumbles and can make a lot of tackles. The IMG Academy product had four interceptions last season and was involved in eight different takeaways, the most by any player in the FBS. The accolades don’t stop there, though. Jones led the team with 69 tackles and emerged as one of the nation’s best linebackers. The 6-foot-1, 220 lbs. defender has the ability to be the focal point of the entire defense this fall.

Geoff Cantin-Arku, Junior

So Jones gets it done in the turnover category, Cantin-Arku gets it done by getting to the quarterback. The Canadian led the Orange with four sacks in 2020, along with finishing third on the team in tackles for loss with six. Cantin-Arku used to be a special teamer, but has flipped the switch to becoming one of Tony White’s best linebackers in just a year’s span. Number 31 started in ten of eleven games last season for the Orange, but more likely than not will start in all 12 this season.

Stefon Thompson, Sophomore

How impactful is Thompson? Here’s your answer: impactful enough to be the first true freshman linebacker to start a season opener since Dyshawn Davis, back in 2011. The North Carolinian hit the ground running early last year. In Syracuse’s first game against North Carolina, Thompson tallied a career-high seven tackles. His first career sack came a week later against 25th-ranked Pittsburgh. Thompson finished 2020 with 35 tackles, seven and a half tackles for loss, and three sacks.

Marlowe Wax, Sophomore

Rotating in and out of linebacker spots with Thompson was Wax, a running back turned linebacker that played in all eleven games last season. The Baltimore native racked up 33 tackles, five and a half tackles for loss, and three sacks as a role player. Wax had a strong finish to the season, recording four tackles and recovering a fumble against second-ranked Notre Dame, a game in which he logged his first career start. The upside is there with Wax, who has the opportunity to build off a strong 2020 season this fall.

Cuse Athletics

Steve Linton, Redshirt Sophomore

Linton was a late bloomer. The edge rusher only played in three games in 2019, but put up 15 tackles and a fumble recovery in 2020. The former three-star recruit played in eight games and started in one last season. Linton has dangerous speed off the jump, so if you blink, you may find him in the backfield very quickly.

Leon Lowery, Sophomore

The sophomore show keeps rolling along with Lowery. The 6-foot-4, 225 lbs. linebacker appeared in only three games as a reserve. Lowery recorded five total tackles, with three of them coming in his debut against Duke.

Anwar Sparrow, Sophomore

Sparrow did not make an appearance last season for the Orange, but has the chance to do so this season with Kpogba and Richards out of the picture. Sparrow comes from Virginia Beach, where he made waves (no pun intended) on the eastern side of the Commonwealth. His senior year at Salem High School, Sparrow recorded 103 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, four sacks and four forced fumbles, partaking in a defense that allowed less than seven points per game.

Ryan Dolan, Sophomore

Dolan, a 6-foot, 225 lbs. Californian, did not appear in any games last season for the Orange, but has a strong high school career to boast. Coming out of Marin Catholic High School, Dolan led the Wildcats in tackles his senior season.

Malik Matthew, Freshman

There is plenty to be excited about with Malik Matthew. The Bronx native was rated as the number three prospect and the top linebacking prospect, according to 247Sports. In his high school career, Matthew put up about seven tackles per game, along with putting up about one sack per game. Plenty of upside lingering for the 6-foot-3, 220 lbs freshman.

Austin Roon, Freshman

Roon, a three star out of Byron Center High School in Michigan, sits at 6-foot-3, 215 lbs. currently. Although he is undersized at the moment, he was able to put on a show in the wolverine state. In his senior year, Roon was first team all-state, earning a three star rating.

John O’Connor, Freshman

O’Connor got a late word if he was going to play football once again, according to an Aug. 4 article from the Hingham Anchor. O’Connor was expected to move in on Aug. 23 as an SU student, but got invited to join the Orange as a preferred walk-on, back on July 29. Just like Roon, O’Connor is undersized, sitting at 6-foot-1, 210 lbs.