Filling the gaps: Syracuse defense hinges on trio of linebackers, each with something to prove

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first_imgThere’s no question: The linebackers are the crux of Syracuse’s defense.With turnover in front and behind, senior Marquis Spruill and juniors Dyshawn Davis and Cameron Lynch will be relied on to keep the team competitive as a newcomer in the Atlantic Coast Conference without a proven quarterback. Yet, a quick glance at the trio of Orange veterans reveals clear deficiencies.Spruill was charged with disorderly conduct and second-degree harassment after a dispute with police officers Dec. 2. Davis has only played the position for two years. Lynch is undersized (5-foot-11) and inexperienced (three career starts).But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Each has undergone a transformation of sorts, starting last spring. Where they were weak, they are now strong.And they could be the best linebacking corps since Doug Hogue, Derrell Smith and then-freshman Spruill powered the Orange in 2010.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textBeing a LeaderMarquis Spruill’s transformation is just as much perception as reality.How could he shed the details from that Saturday night in December? The ones that jumped off the police report and into the headlines as Syracuse prepared to face West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl.Pulling an officer off of teammate Steve Rene. Kicking the inside of a police van so hard that it swung open and nearly struck an officer. And all before the biggest game of his career.Spruill and Rene have remained steadfast that the outline in that report is not exactly how they remember it. Still, it’s what Spruill had to accept when he pled guilty to the second-degree harassment charge, wrote an apology letter and participated in team counseling.“The incident that night basically happened because I tried to be a leader,” Spruill said. “I tried to go stop something from happening and it didn’t look that way. I had good intentions, it just didn’t look that way.”Teammates and coaches understand what happened that night. They know “‘Quis” best. He’s the guy who tries to keep teammates out of trouble off the field, Dyshawn Davis said. That might be why no-nonsense head coach Doug Marrone allowed Spruill to play in the Pinstripe Bowl.“He’s just one of those guys always looking to protect his teammates, his brothers,” Davis said. “That particular night, when things went wrong, as a team we and the coaches all know that’s not him. He’s a great kid, he’s a great guy and he’s a great leader.”For Spruill, swallowing his pride for the success of his future wasn’t new.After receiving no offers out of Hillside (N.J.) High School, he attended Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. There, he hated shining shoes — and boots, which were harder to clean since they had bigger pores. He hated taking orders from 10th-grade kids just because they outranked him.“The culture of military life, I didn’t really like it at all,” Spruill said, “but I accepted it because I knew I was trying to do something. I was trying to find a school to go to for football, so if I had to bite my tongue and do what they said, I would do it.”It’s the same way he handled the situation this past winter. And with that maturity, he grew in the eyes of his teammates and coaches.Davis saw the difference in the way Spruill handled the court hearings and media backlash. Spruill’s roommate of more than a year, Davis watched him work through the everyday grind of redefining his reputation as a player and leader going into his final collegiate season.“He just changed into a different person,” Davis said.Head coach Scott Shafer saw the difference in the way Spruill ran defensive practices this summer. Spruill held more sessions than the team has run any summer since he got here.“He took that defense and they damn near practiced on their own three days a week,” Shafer said. “I was so proud of him.”It was only two years ago that Shafer remembers Spruill shying away from that role. “Coach, I don’t feel comfortable being a leader,” Shafer recalls Spruill telling him.Now the whole team looks up to Spruill, a four-year starter and established signal caller for the defense.For Spruill, the incident in December is in the past. He doesn’t let it define him.Sliding back into his natural middle linebacker slot this season, he has the support of all his teammates and coaches.“We needed a little leadership, and he’s the guy,” linebackers coach Clark Lea said. “They all look to him. They all look to him and they know he can do it.”Rounding Out His GameStanding in the back-left corner of the end zone, Dyshawn Davis turned away from the Carrier Dome stands and back at what he dreaded most.The ball was in Demetrius Fields’ hands. It had soared over Davis a second earlier. Davis ripped the chinstraps off the side of his helmet and jump-twisted in frustration.Northwestern scored with 44 seconds left to spoil Syracuse’s season opener 42-41 last year.“Dyshawn Davis is still learning to play the position,” first-year linebackers coach Clark Lea said. “He spent a better part of his first two seasons being a runner on the field. We want him to do that because that’s a strength of his, but if we can just work on the finer points of his game to be a complete player.”Davis might be the most physically gifted player on the team. Six feet 2 inches, 220 pounds. Strong. Fast. Explosive. That’s what got him the starting job as a freshman, and what’s gotten him into the backfield more than any other SU player these last two seasons.Davis leads the team with 24.5 tackles for loss in that span, but dropping in coverage or filling space in the box has been sometimes problematic. Like when Davis failed to hold contain on an end-around and a reverse in a loss to Southern California last season.After missing the spring season with offseason shoulder surgery, Davis began working with Lea on rounding out his game in the summer. Footwork in the box, dropping in coverage and coming out of breaks. Using his hands to control tight ends at the line of scrimmage.“I feel like I’ve had a tremendous amount of improvement being outside the box and covering the pass,” Davis said. “Being active on the play, driving to the ball after the ball is thrown.”Lea said Davis’ experience playing wide receiver at Woodbury (N.J.) High School shows in his ability to use his hips to change direction and his catching ability. It’s his height, Lea said, that makes perfecting the backpedaling and crossovers difficult.“With a guy that long, that’s the first thing that usually goes,” Lea said. “It’s hard for those guys, but that’s something he’s been concentrating on and studying.”While Davis is only in his third season playing linebacker, he started in limited formation as a freshman and full-time last year. Experience playing in the secondary at Woodbury and safety at Milford (N.Y.) Academy helped, but to become a multi-dimensional linebacker, he’ll need to continue to work on the intricacies of coverage.“I hope as we move forward that he just starts rounding out his game so that he can still run and hit and do those things well,” Lea said, “but the finer points of coverage or playing in the box when he needs to and getting his body under control to make a play in space, those are things we’ve spent a good amount of time on in camp drilling.”Finding the StrengthZiniu Chen | Staff PhotographerCam Lynch’s page reads like so:The No. 54 outside linebacker in the Class of 2011. Three stars. Five feet 11 inches. Two hundred and fifteen pounds. Strengths: instincts, lateral movement, tackling technique.Areas for improvement: size.Three years after choosing Syracuse, Lynch has added 15 pounds of muscle. He’s still 5 feet 11 inches, easily the shortest of the three starting linebackers, but senior defensive tackle Jay Bromley called him the strongest.The Shamarko Thomas of linebackers, Bromley said.“He can probably jump about 35 (inches), bench about 450 (pounds), if not more, and squat about 5(00) something,” Bromley said. “… He’s like a bowling ball of just speed.”Even at Brookwood High School in Snellville, Ga., Lynch was strong. Now entering his junior year with the Orange, he’ll be a first-year starter playing against some of the fastest running backs in the country. Yet with only three career starts, Lynch’s lack of height or experience doesn’t seem to worry any of the Orange coaches or players.Nor should it.He was a rotation player in each of the last two seasons, starting once as a freshman and twice as a sophomore. Last year, he notched a career-high nine tackles against Missouri on Nov. 17, and added four tackles, half a sack and a forced fumble against West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 29.This spring, he manned the starting strong linebacker spot when Davis sat out after offseason shoulder surgery.“He spent a lot of time this summer becoming a student of the game and really trying to absorb a lot of information from a football standpoint,” linebackers coach Clark Lea said. “It made this transition to fall camp a lot smoother.”His performance through camp has been inconsistent at times, Lea said, but the high points have been eye-popping.Last Monday, Lynch trifled through the line on back-to-back plays in a 7-on-7 drill. First, he beat tackle Sean Hickey around the outside before tagging quarterbacking offensive line coach Pat Perles for the sack.On the next play, he ran a twist stunt with Spruill and sped past Hickey up the middle for another sack.Lynch’s strength and speed allow him to exploit the smallest of crevices in an offensive front. Now he’s working on going through offensive linemen, as well.“I want to sharpen up being physical at the line,” Lynch said. “I’m good at that, but being physical at the line and just working on that. Everything else is solid.”For a guy who scored a 1435 on his SAT, according to, and received a scholarship offer from Harvard, identifying and understanding the quickest way into the backfield shouldn’t be a problem – especially considering he grew up in Georgia and knows the Atlantic Coast Conference brand of football well.While Lynch can’t do anything to get taller, he’s done everything in his power to prove his size and strength is far from an area of improvement.Bromley said Lynch turns heads in the weight room. Now he’s knocking them backward on the practice field, too.“This guy is limitless,” Bromley said. “There’s really not much he can’t do.”Three linebackers. Three questions. If Syracuse is to stay afloat in the ACC this year, it’ll need all three to carry its defensive weight.Davis remembers idolizing Hogue and Smith when he watched games at Milford Academy. He remembers getting to Syracuse and sitting down with Spruill. They talked about a dream.“I knew in the future that we had a chance to be better than Doug and Derrell,” Davis said. “That kind of went by quick filling in the footsteps and the shoes of those guys. Now we’re trying to be the best that we can be and try to be better than them.”With Lynch beside them, the three form a more complete group than that of 2010. A group with arguably more pressure, but as Davis said, a group that knows how crucial it is to the team’s success.They’re the heart and soul of the defense.“We’re just the three soldiers,” Davis said, “sticking together, holding the team together.” Commentslast_img

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