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Syracuse Football Preview: Linebackers

SU Linebacker Marlowe Wax runs to the stands after recovering a fumble against UConn in 2022.
SU Linebacker Marlowe Wax runs to the stands after recovering a fumble against UConn in 2022.

In 2022, Syracuse Football had a good feeling about who would be on the field in their season opener against Louisville. However, SU’s linebacking core will take on a new look both on the field and with who is on the sidelines. Let’s see what changes can be expected for the heart and soul of the Orange’s defense in 2023.

The elephant in the room when it comes to this unit is the departure of Mikel Jones. The newly-drafted Los Angeles Charger racked up 84 total tackles last season and was the emotional leader of the “Mob” in his second year as team captain.

Thankfully for the ‘Cuse, the only player who had more tackles than Jones in last year’s campaign is returning for his senior season, Marlowe Wax. During spring practices, Wax says that he is “definitely in a leadership role”, as he was announced as one of the two captains on defense.

The player that was supposed to be his running mate last year was Stefon Thompson. He’ll give his sophomore season another go after suffering a season ending injury which caused him to redshirt. Thompson has been practicing with the Orange during fall camp.

In Thompson’s absence in 2022, Derek McDonald stepped up big for the Orange and became a consistent starter. The now-sophomore tallied 41 tackles along with an interception and a forced fumble.

It’s reasonable to expect Wax, Thompson and McDonald to be the projected starters for Syracuse’s season opener against Colgate on September 2nd, barring any injuries. However, there are many other players we can expect to get snaps as the season progresses.

Anwar Sparrow saw plenty of time later in the year, starting the last three games of the regular season. The redshirt sophomore had his best showing to date against Boston College in the regular season finale, recording six total tackles, a sack, and forced fumble.

Similarly to Sparrow, Leon Lowry played in 12 games in the previous campaign with two of them coming as a starter. Kadin Bailey started his freshman season working on special teams before earning some snaps at linebacker towards the end of the season.

Sparrow, Lowry, and Bailey are all coming into 2023 after their first experiences to a full season of action. Their presence will be valuable as Syracuse struggled with its depth on the defensive side of the ball last year. Babers praised Lowry and Bailey during spring practices for stepping up when veterans have gone down. “They're doing a nice job out there,” said Coach Babers during spring practices. “Those guys are getting all the reps that they wouldn’t be getting if [Wax and Thompson] were out here. They’ve made a lot of growth.”

Rounding out the depth chart are players that are young and will primarily be used in the special teams if they see the field. This list includes Josh Kubala, Austin Roon, Ryan Dolan, and Yosuke Sugano.

While Rocky Long, the “godfather” of the 3-3-5 defense, enters his first season as defensive coordinator, he is also the new linebackers coach. There shouldn’t be any drastic changes for the unit as Syracuse ran the 3-3-5 last season under Tony White. Leon Lowry said that the team has “full faith” in what Long is teaching during spring practices. A main focus in April was for the linebackers and defensive backs was getting to the ball or “getting money” as junior Alijah Clark put it.