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Syracuse Football Preview: Linebackers
Linebacker Marlowe Wax (2, Blue) makes a tackle in the 2024 spring football game.

At the conclusion of the 2023 season, there was a lot of change within the Syracuse football program. Along with new defensive coordinator Elijah Robinson from Texas A&M, head coach Fran Brown brought in Robert Wright. The former University of Buffalo defensive coordinator was named co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach for the Orange. Wright coached alongside Robinson at College Station from 2019-2020. He has high praise for his former and current colleague.

“As I've moved around, you think about people you'd want to work for in the future, and he was one of those people,” Wright said.

Heading into the 2024 campaign, SU's new staff has put an emphasis on physicality. Coach Wright zoned in on tackling.

"We got to be the best tackling position group on the field,” Wright added.

The competitiveness day-to-day within the team is an aspect to practice that top teams in the country utilize and has been missing from Syracuse in recent years. The linebacking group will look different from 2023, starting with the scheme (4-2-5) that allows for more off-ball action because of the 4 linemen. In addition to a different alignment, the transfer portal snatched away four linebackers, of which two had a large impact for SU. Stefon Thompson secured 169 tackles and over 10 sacks in 36 games for the Orange and committed to Nebraska after Syracuse lost to South Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl. Leon Lowry committed to Wisconsin. Lowry started all 12 regular season games at linebacker for Syracuse last year.

Marlowe Wax, Senior

One of the biggest questions going into the offseason was whether Junior Marlowe Wax would return for his senior season. If Fran Brown wanted to have success defensively, keeping the second-team All-ACC linebacker would be a vital component. The Oragne’s captain led the team in tackles with 110, forced fumbles (four), and tackles for loss (11.5). Wax was draft-eligible and could have entered the transfer portal where he would have been highly sought out. Thankfully for the ‘Cuse, it returns college football’s second-highest returning tackler among active power conference players. Wax was recently named to the 2024 preseason All-ACC team.

Derek McDonald, Redshirt Junior

In a loaded defense, McDonald might be one of the most underrated players. After redshirting in 2021, the former three-star according to 247 Sports started 8 games in 2022 and all 13 in 2023. McDonald was third on the team with 67 tackles last season, and against Florida State on October 14th, he posted a career high 10. Entering his fourth season on the hill, McDonald acknowledged that expectations are reset.

"I thought we were working pretty hard before,” McDonald said, “but since [Fran Brown] has come… what's demanded of us, the standard, it keeps rising every day and that's something I think is really cool to watch."
Derek McDonald (15, Blue) brings down Dan Villari (89, White) in the 2024 spring game.

Anwar Sparrow, Redshirt Junior

Sparrow had shown flashes of high caliber linebacking play in each of his first three seasons playing in the 315. In 2023, although he did not start a single game, he registered a tackle in all 13 appearances and had greater than three takedowns five times. His best showing came against Army when he had three tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss.

James Heard, Redshirt Freshman 

Hailing from Camden, New Jersey, James Heard is one of the newest additions to this linebacking group. The West Virginia transfer was one of the 19 portal newcomers that the new staff added. Heard only saw action in three games for the Mountaineers and redshirted. The former top-ten New Jersey recruit aims to compete for a role in this experienced group.

The linebacking core for Syracuse football has the potential to rank among the top groups in the country. After a productive spring, attention turns to August 31, for the opening matchup against Ohio inside the Dome.