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Syracuse 2017 spring football preview: Wide receivers & tight ends

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Does enough experience return to replicate last year’s success?

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We’re flipping the calendar to 2017 for Syracuse Orange football. That starts with spring practice, which takes place from March 21 through April 22.

Before spring practice gets going, we’re digging into each position to preview what might happen in the coming months, and how that sets up the fall’s upcoming football season.

Today's topic:

Can the wide receiver position live up to last year’s high bar?

Who’s on campus?

SU loses a few names that certainly leave a hole in this offense. Amba Etta-Tawo and Brisly Estime were each invaluable in their own way, and replacing them will be no easy feat.

That said, there’s plenty of experience on campus that can be plugged in with the hope of filling those voids.

Ervin Philips, the Orange’s second-leading receiver from last year, is back, as is Steve Ishmael. Those two should lock down the inside and outside receiver spots, respectively, along with Sean Riley and Devin Butler this spring, as the most experienced options.

If Jamal Custis can come back from injury, he’s another potential option on the outside. The Orange also have veteran but virtually unknown wideouts ready to go in Adly Enoicy and Tyrone Perkins.

There are no returning tight ends on this year’s roster, though JUCO transfer Ravian Pierce will be here this spring.

Who’s arriving this summer?

A whole bunch of players, actually. Syracuse added four wide receivers and two tight ends to the class of 2017, including Pierce.

At the wide receiver position, Nykeim Johnson, Sharod Johnson, Cameron Jordan and Russell Thompson-Bishop all fit their own respective roles, and any or all could see playing time in 2017.

Along with Pierce, true freshman Aaron Hackett also figures to be in the mix as a tight end.

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How do you replace Etta-Tawo’s production?

This will be critical for Syracuse’s passing game right off the bat. The Maryland transfer’s emergence in game one automatically reset the bar for the Orange receiving corps. last year. And there are few teams in the country who can easily replace 94 catches, 1,482 yards and 14 touchdowns.

But if any can, it may be SU. Ishmael’s game was hindered by a balancing act of running intermediate routs while Eric Dungey leaned on Etta-Tawo and Philips. Ishmael now takes over the top outside receiver mantle, which should mean more deep opportunities.

Butler also showed glimmers of promise in limited time last year. If he can up his game this year, he’ll be an ample sub for Ishmael’s production, allowing Ish to step up into Amba’s old role.

Replacing Etta-Tawo may also put some more onus on the short passing game — which is sort of what Dino Babers wants anyway.

Who emerges beyond the two obvious names?

Your top four are tentatively Ishmael, Butler, Philips and Riley. After that, it’s anyone’s guess.

In the spring, there won’t be much additional competition, so we’ll get a look at what Custis, Enoicy and Perkins could really be as receivers in this offense.

Come the fall, the freshmen could really excite if given the chance, though. Thompson-Bishop and Jordan both have the size to mimic what Etta-Tawo did on the outside. If Ishmael and Butler need some help, they both have the ability to contribute right away.

How will tight ends be used this year?

You’d think it would be in a blocking capacity, but then why bring in two players -- Pierce and Hackett -- who are probably better pass-catchers?

Both players are big enough to block, but you have to figure that combined with Custis and Enoicy, we could see some more two tight end short-yardage sets in the passing game. They’d be “tight ends” in name, but really, would be heavier, more physical receivers.

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What will Erv do for an encore?

All of the attention was on Etta-Tawo last year, but Philips didn’t have a bad season himself in just his second year as a wide receiver. The former running back hauled in 90 catches of his own (second highest single-season total in school history) for 822 yards and six scores.

Defenses appeared to key in on him early, but it failed to do much good. He caught six or more passes in all but two games out of 12.

If the onus really does fall on the short passing game, Erv’s abilities in the slot will prove even more important than they were before. No Orange receiver has ever topped 100 catches in a season. The speedy Philips could end up being the first.

Is this the year we see what Custis can really do?

If it is, he’ll set the stage for it this spring.

Custis’s size (6-foot-5, 224 pounds) make him a unique weapon in this offense. Despite only catching five passes in his career, though, you can see the roadmap ahead for the big wideout. With receiver speed and tight end size, he’s uniquely capable of creating jump ball situations at the goal line. We saw it once in 2015, and then it disappeared. WHY?!

If not Custis, then Enoicy or Pierce could also be utilized here. But really, he’s an interesting athlete this team should be able to take advantage of in short yardage if he’s healthy. Let’s hope he finally is this year.

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What else do you want to see from SU’s wide receivers and tight ends in 2017?