While the Syracuse Orange went 4-8 for the second consecutive year, it was far from the same 4-8 the team saw in its final season under Scott Shafer. In Dino Babers’s first campaign, SU’s offense looked far more capable and the team looked more competitive overall. They also dealt with a boatload of injuries and a difficult schedule — both of which scuttled chances to improve in the win column this year.
Still, after what was an admittedly fun season, it’s worth looking back to see which units did well and which failed to, and how that impacted the Orange’s success or lack thereof.
We continue with...
Wide receivers (and tight ends)
From 2013 through 2015, Syracuse’s receptions went down precipitously. In 2013, the Orange caught 242 passes, then 207 in 2014, and a horrifying 164 last fall. We knew that number would go up quite a bit in 2016, but we weren’t sure by how much.
Syracuse players caught 332 passes -- nearly double what they did a year ago. And over half of those were by two players (and one of those players wasn’t even on the roster in 2015).
Amba Etta-Tawo, as you well know, caught 94 balls for 1,482 yards and 14 touchdowns. All of those were single-season records, and the Maryland transfer even received (third-team) AP All-American honors to further cement his place as one of the best receivers to ever play for the Orange. He wasn’t even the only SU wideout to break school records, either.
Two years ago, Ervin Philips was a running back. In 2015, he was a serviceable receiver who was still working on becoming a little more sure-handed. In 2016, the junior caught 90 passes (also surpassing the previous SU record) and vaulted himself into the school’s top 10 all-time numbers.
Outside of the top two, there was still plenty more to love at wide receiver, too. Steve Ishmael and Brisly Estime caught 48 passes apiece, and even less-used options like Alvin Cornelius and Sean Riley amassed more than 100 receiving yards.
The beauty of Babers’s system was that the pieces were both interchangeable and individually valuable in their own respective rights. Syracuse had two different quarterbacks throw for over 430 yards in a game. Four wideouts surpassed last year’s top reception total (39). Eleven caught at least one pass of 10 or more yards. This year’s passing game succeeded because of the system, but it caught on quicker than expected because of the players on the roster.
Syracuse’s receivers and tight ends also appeared to improve as blockers over the course of the season. The impact of that won’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet, mind you (especially given the blocking issues elsewhere on the team). But when Orange quarterbacks threw into small spaces (they used a trips formations quite a bit), those who weren’t getting the ball were quick to throw a key block to set the receiver up for a run after the catch.
Tight ends, while they didn’t catch a ton of passes, seemed to be part of that blocking progress as well. The position didn’t necessarily electrify the same way wideouts did, but they didn’t take away from what the Orange passing offense was doing either. Maybe a little more use in the red zone could’ve helped, but overall, no real complaints about the tight ends in 2016.
The Orange grew by leaps and bounds in terms of catching the football in 2016, and that progress (along with quarterback play) was one of the primary motivators for SU’s offensive strides. There were some drops, sure. But those happen with increased opportunities as well. Syracuse’s receivers were standouts in nearly every game this year, which is not something we’ve been able to say any time recently.