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Syracuse football 2017 report card: Wide receivers/tight ends

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Here’s one group we haven’t had to worry about under Dino Babers.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange football program went 4-8 for the third consecutive season. But since I’m not one to let anything die a peaceful death, we’re going to rehash the year anyway (while also looking forward a bit, too).

Another injury-riddled season provides plenty to ponder this offseason, and as we’re all acutely aware, there’s a high level of “what if” on Syracuse’s 2017 campaign as well. Between all of that, the difficult schedule and the Clemson win, it’s easy to dig around the results for just about any narrative you want.

We’ll choose a more optimistic view on all of it, but that doesn’t mean we’re avoiding criticism either. Looking back at 2017, we’re going position by position, to see what worked, what didn’t and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or lack thereof).

Next up...

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Wide receivers/tight ends

Since Dino Babers arrived, Syracuse’s most consistent position group has probably been its collection of pass-catchers. While we thought SU receivers could take a step back in 2017 without Amba Etta-Tawo and Brisly Estime, it ends up the group acquitted itself just fine while reshuffling the deck.

We knew that Steve Ishmael had a ton of talent through his first three years at SU, though he was never really able to apply it (to the fault of the offense). This season changed all of that, however, as the senior set a new school record with 105 catches. He also recorded the second-highest yardage total in school history.

Ishmael’s size and sure hands were a major asset to the passing game, even if it struggled at times to find him downfield. The senior thrived no matter where he was placed on the field, operating primarily on the outside but finding space in the slot as well.

That’s not to emphasize Ishmael as the team’s only receiving option, either. Ervin Philips was a known entity going into the season and he delivered a second straight season of big numbers and quickly creating space at inside receiver. His 89 catches were just one short of last year’s mark, and he established himself as more of a downfield threat too. SU also used him in the run game a little, to much positive effect.

But while last year’s pass game was a four-man show, this year’s was decidedly just two deep. Other players managed to catch quite a few passes, but not with any consistency. Devin Butler had 33 catches, though I’d argue at least half as many drops. Sean Riley, Nykeim Johnson and Jamal Custis were never used consistently despite catching eight passes apiece.

That’s not to say receivers were completely lost beyond Ishmael and Philips, though. When Butler was on, he looked like a future No. 1 option. Riley’s speed is still a game-changer. Moe Neal and Dontae Strickland were more involved in pass-catching than they had been previously, but remained running backs in name this season (we’ll see going forward).

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

However, what was truly different was the use of the tight end here. Previous Babers offenses never used the tight end a whole lot actually throwing the ball. This year, Ravian Pierce caught 29 passes, and four of those were touchdowns. The physical target managed to be a major mismatch at times. And when he was playing well, it changed the entire tenor of the offense (both the run and pass). Of all of the JUCO additions, you could argue he was most important, even if that output was up and down throughout the season.

Examining the notes above, there’s not much to ding Ishmael and Philips on, and we won’t bother doing so here. Beyond Dungey, the two players were the most important on this team.

The youth beyond those two really did show itself, however, which is part of the critique you may want to throw at this group. No other team had a top-two receiver tandem like SU did this year, I’ll admit. But when one (or both) was unable to get going, there was simply no one to really step up.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Is that entirely on the young pass-catchers, though? The run game only came on out of necessity later in the year, and the offensive line’s ability to protect long enough to throw deep definitely cut that out of this year’s arsenal. Losing Eric Dungey for the final three games also derailed what the pass game could do — though it certainly didn’t affect Philips and Ishmael’s respective abilities to put up numbers.

SU’s receivers were effective as a group, but digging past the first two stars does reveal a few follow-up questions. Those are more critical for next season, though, with Ishmael and Philips gone. Most teams aren’t getting 194 receptions out of three guys, nevermind two. I’m not going to pan this team for failing to have three of the best wideouts in football, and other problems beyond their control.

Final grade: A-