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Three remaining questions for Syracuse football

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We have questions; we need answers.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Spring practice has ended. Graduation has come and gone. And players have headed home for the summer.

The Syracuse Orange football team has already begun its three-month hiatus and won’t return to action until practice begins this summer. As players and coaches enjoy their brief break from the rigors of the college football season, SU fans are left without answers to some of the biggest questions regarding the Syracuse football team.

Here are three questions that went unanswered following the conclusion of spring practice.

Where will Moe Neal predominately play?

NCAA Football: South Florida at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

As a freshman last season, Moe Neal showed flashes as a backup running back, bursting out of the gate with a 49-yard touchdown on his very first collegiate carry in Syracuse’s season-opening win over Colgate. However, outside of three more 35+ yard runs, Neal struggled running the ball behind the Orange’s injury-ravged offensive line, finishing the season with just 2.8 yards per carry (to put that in context, those four long runs boosted Neal’s yards per cary to a misguiding 5.3 average).

Following the departure of former slot receiver Brisly Estime, it seemed likely either Neal or running back Dontae Strickland would switch to receiver to replace him. When Babers released the spring two-man depth chart, he listed the 5-foot-11 169-pound Neal at inside receiver, and Strickland as the starting running back. This didn’t raise many eyebrows, and was widely expected (by myself and others), as Strickland weighs nearly 30 pounds more than Neal and Babers favors bigger backs.

However, rather than cement his position on the depth chart, Neal’s performance in Syracuse’s spring game put it back in doubt. Neal failed to haul in a single reception and instead lead the team in rushing with five carries for 15 yards. So, will Neal work more as a running back or a receiver? Only time will tell.

Most likely answer: Neal will see playing time at both running back and inside receiver this season before moving to inside receiver permanently in 2018 once Erv Phillips graduates.

Who will be the backup quarterback?

Normally a backup quarterback competition wouldn’t warrant much attention. However, starter Eric Dungey has now missed seven games over the past two seasons due to various injuries. As a result, it is more likely than not Syracuse’s backup quarterback will be asked to step up and fill-in for Dungey at some point during the season.

Heading into spring practice, senior Zach Mahoney was the likely candidate to serve as Dungey’s backup. Mahoney filled in relatively well for Dungey last year, completing more than 60% of his passes for 943 yards and nine touchdowns to just four interceptions. However, a vast majority of those numbers (440 yards and five touchdowns) came in Syracuse’s shootout 76-61 season finale loss to Pitt. While Mahoney got the first crack leading the second-team offense during Syracuse’s spring game, he struggled mightily and was outplayed by redshirt freshman Rex Culpepper.

Mahoney was inaccurate from the start, missing open receivers and throwing an ill-advised pass intended for Clay Austin that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Antwan Cordy. Mahoney finished 2-for-9 with one pick and no touchdowns. Culpepper finished 7-for-13 with an interception as well, but looked far more poised than Mahoney. It’s also worth noting Culpepper is the ideal quarterback for Babers’ offense – a 6-foot-3, 224-pound pro-style quarterback. Culpepper also came to Syracuse as a 3-star prospect, while Mahoney began the 2015 season as a sixth-string walk-on.

Most likely answer: Mahoney will get the first nod to start fall practice as Dungey’s backup but will eventually be beaten out by the more polished Culpepper in a close competition.

Who will replace Amba Etta-Tawo?

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse’s record-setting receiver is now down in sunny Jacksonville, Fla., having signed with Doug Marrone and Tom Coughlin’s Jaguars as an undrafted free agent. With Etta-Tawo chasing his NFL dreams, Dino Babers is left with the difficult task of trying to improve his high-flying offense without a player who accounted for nearly 40% of Syracuse’s receiving production.

While it’s doubtful any one player will be able to come close to duplicating Etta-Tawo’s 2016 numbers, the fact remains there are 94 receptions and 1,482 yards up for grabs and someone is likely to see a significant bump in production. Inside receiver Erv Phillips was already a focal point of the offense last season – finishing with 90 receptions for 822 yards – so it would be a surprise if his numbers saw much of an uptick. That leaves senior Steve Ishmael, junior Jamal Custis and sophomores Devin C. Butler and Sean Riley as the most likely candidates to see an increased role in the offense.

Of these four, the clear-cut favorite to shine next season is Ishmael. The 6-foot-2, 213-pound receiver is actually bigger than Etta-Tawo (6-foot-1, 198 pounds) and came to Syracuse as a highly-touted 3-star high school prospect, choosing the Orange over Tennessee, Louisville and West Virginia, among others. Even with being overshadowed by Etta-Tawo last season, Ishmael still finished with a respectable 48 receptions for 559 yards and one touchdown.

Most likely answer: Ishmael will see a significant bump in production, finishing the season with more than 70 receptions for roughly 900 yards and at least seven touchdowns.