Last year, Ervin Philips caught a lot of passes. This you know. The then-junior, who had not played a primary receiver role to that point, caught 90 balls (including 14 in the season opener) and was one of the Syracuse Orange passing game’s favorite targets.
Ends up, he was the team’s favorite target when they needed him the most -- on third and fourth down. And he typically delivered, too.
As ESPN’s David Hale points out, Erv was targeted a whopping 38 times on third and fourth down, and 55.2 percent of the time, he either made it to the first down marker or into the end zone. As a slot receiver in this offense, Philips had a knack for getting open shortly after the snap to pick up a quick few yards. While the 90 receptions last year were the second-most in school history -- to Amba Etta-Tawo’s mark, also set last year — he did only average nine yards per catch on those.
Still, a weapon like that should probably be utilized even more than he already was. Syracuse struggled to convert on third downs last year, managing it just 39.44 percent of the time. Fourth down was better (17-of-27). But still, if you can target a player that many times on critical downs, and he delivers more than half the time? Those are odds you take as much as you possibly can.
Philips is the leading receiver returning to the Orange, even if teammate Steve Ishmael may grab a few more headlines. The Connecticut native will return to the slot once again, where he’ll operate opposite sophomore Sean Riley. Ishmael and Devin Butler are your potential starting outside receivers -- unless Butler cedes that spot to a bigger player like Jamal Custis or even a tight end (perhaps Ravian Pierce?).
This sort of third and fourth down success would seem to indicate that Philips will be covered more, but this information was also available last year, and opponents did nothing about it. Philips fell short of seven catches just once in his final six games. In the finale against Pitt, he had 11 catches for over 100 yards.
The senior will also be climbing the career receptions list for Syracuse, despite a very short time at he position. His 134 catches have already vaulted him past names like Art Monk, Mike Williams and Rob Moore. If he repeats his 90-catch effort from 2016, he’ll finish with 23 more catches than Alec Lemon had (201) during his entire record-setting career. And he was a receiver the whole time.
We’ll get into more record book stuff this summer. But just know that Philips was a monster on third and fourth, and considering Dino Babers’s propensity to go back to things that work, you’ll likely see a lot more of the same emphasis on Erv in 2017.