Football

Kielan Whitner’s transition from defensive back to linebacker gives Syracuse a more balanced defense

Jessica Sheldon | Staff Photographer

Junior Kielan Whitner was the starting strong safety last season for head coach Dino Babers. This year, he'll play linebacker for SU.

Kielan Whitner may have been the starting strong safety last season, but the Syracuse coaching staff feels like the secondary is a lot deeper this year.

This season, Whitner must compete against multiple players to try and see the field in the secondary, but the coaches still wanted him to be on the field. Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brian Ward approached him after spring ball and suggested a switch to outside linebacker. Whitner’s versatility should help bolster and make the Syracuse’s defense more dynamic this season.

“There’s certain guys that we want to get in the game because they can help us win,” SU head coach Dino Babers said. “And if he’s one of those guys, then we’ll get him in the game. … I think it was a good move for him, and I think he’ll contribute in 2017.”

The starting linebackers have been fairly consistent for SU. Parris Bennett and Zaire Franklin, who started every game and Jonathan Thomas — who started nine of 12 games last year — will start again this season. Bennett and Franklin finished in the Top 10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference in tackles per game a year ago.

Whitner played both strong safety and free safety in his two years at SU, including starts at each position last season. As of now, Whitner is pegged as backup strong-side linebacker, behind Thomas. And although he is technically playing a new position, he said he already feels comfortable there.

“At strong safety, they had me roll down to the box,” Whitner said. “It’s very similar to playing outside linebacker.”

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While Whitner was a defensive back in high school, he said he had a little bit of experience playing outside linebacker. His task was usually to guard the opposing team’s best receiver. If that player happened to be a slot receiver, then Whitner would drop down and match up.

The skillset Whitner brings could also help with disguising the defense. Last season, on nearly every third down, there was a nickel package in which Whitner would come in, he said. Now, with him at linebacker, SU could conceivably keep him on the field for third downs. This would make it tough for defenses to tell whether Whitner would be acting as a nickel defensive back or whether he would just be playing his standard outside linebacker role.

While Franklin knows that changing positions can be a challenge, he echoed Whitner in saying that switch should not being too difficult and praised his improvement. Franklin is in charge of communicating with the rest of the defense on the field, telling players where to move or how to disguise a certain look. He said Whitner consistently asks questions if he’s unsure about a certain play or look, which has made the transition run smoothly.

“He’s one of those guys who prides himself on knowing everything,” Franklin said. “He already had a kind of decent knowledge of the SAM anyway. I think he’s made a really good transition.

“He’s going to be a baller.”

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