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Syracuse football 2017 position preview: Wide receivers & tight ends

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Hey, this is a strength now!

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

Very early Syracuse Orange opponent previews are done, so we’ve moved onto position overviews in earnest. This is preview season -- the official prelude to the triumphant return of college football for 2017.

Each week, we’ll be profiling one of Dino Babers’s position groups and every player that could make an impact this fall. This week, we’re discussing:

Wide receivers & tight ends

Last year, Syracuse’s wide receivers put on a show in year one of Babers’s offense. Four players tallied more than 500 yards receiving, two blew away the previous single-season receptions mark, and one (Amba Etta-Tawo) was an All-American. Unfortunately, his production’s gone this season, so there are question marks to be had. Can the group he and Brisly Estime leave behind match or even improve upon last year’s big numbers?

Outside receivers

Steve Ishmael, Senior

Last year, we thought Steve Ishmael was due for his breakout season, but that was before we knew anything about Amba Etta-Tawo. Still, despite some perception that he didn’t perform to expectations, he did catch 48 passes (a career-high) for 559 yards and one touchdown. As we’ve discussed here before, Ish is a pro-level talent that is a quality blocker and also an exert route-runner. He’s excelled at intermediate routes in the past, so now we get to see if he can thrive as the team’s deep option. Expect big things this fall.

Jamal Custis, (Redshirt) Junior

We’ve been pining for Custis’s skill set to be used properly for years now, and this may finally be the time. The big target (6-foot-5, 227 lbs.) could be a revelation in the red zone as a jump ball option, but we’ve only seen him used that way once. With health on his side this year and a projected starting spot, this could finally be the year he delivers on all of that promise.

Adly Enoicy, (Redshirt) Junior

Enoicy is the same type of super athletic player that Custis is, with a similar build and ability to create problems in the red zone. While they’re not “tight ends,” Babers may use both players like he would that position for short yardage situations and again, the red zone. Having two big options like Custis and Enoicy to throw to should create a ton of mismatches we just didn’t have the personnel to exploit last season.

Devin C. Butler, Sophomore

If anyone on the offense truly surprises this year, it could be Butler, who has great hands, a long reach and a ton of speed on the outside. Should Ishmael still show he’s better suited for more complicated routes, Butler could become the teams primary deep option. We liked what we saw (two catches, 14 yards) in very limited exposure last year. He’ll have a much larger role this year.

Russell Thompson-Bishop, Freshman

Thompson-Bishop already possesses some blazing speed (sub-4.4 40-yard dash) and the build to play wide receiver at a power conference. He’s also built up a quality rapport with Tommy DeVito, something that will pay dividends down the road. RTB may only see the field in spurts this year, but you’ll like what you see as he preps for a bigger role next year.

Cameron Jordan, Freshman

Jordan’s another long-term play as a primary contributor on this offense. His 6-foot-3, 195 pound build as an incoming freshman is only likely to grow. And while it’s unlikely he’s plugged into a Custis/Enoicy-type mold, you can see that his future lies as a major mismatch with corners on the outside.

Tyler Gilfus, (Redshirt) Freshman

The former walk-on QB is unlikely to get much playing time within the offense, but you could see him a bit on special teams. He’s already been here a year, so he also knows the offense and can assist incoming freshman with the learning process.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Connecticut Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Inside receivers

Ervin Philips, Senior

Erv has the potential to put up the biggest numbers of any wideout on the team this year. Feeling his way around his new role last year, he managed 90 catches (second in school history) -- and that was with teams keying in on him at the line of scrimmage. He might do even more this coming season, and outsiders think so too. Philips was named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list this week.

Sean Riley, Sophomore

The California product made his biggest impact in the kick return game, but he was still a factor on offense. Riley’s 11 catches for 109 yards showed he was able to quickly find seams in the defense, and that speed will be put on display even more this fall. His offensive production will be dependent on how often SU runs four-wide (with two inside receivers),

Sean Avant, (Redshirt) Senior

Avant’s been around long enough to help show young players the ropes, and you could also see him plugged into select situations on the offense. If SU ends up with three receivers and a tight end more often, his chances will be limited. But he could end up a reasonable shot-yardage option.

Nykeim Johnson, Freshman

We cool with “Johnson & Johnson” as a nickname for Nykeim and Sharod? The two freshmen will find this year most valuable to learn from the inside receiver extraordinaire, Philips. Nykeim’s the smaller of the two (just 5-foot-8, 163 pounds), so he may need to gain a few pounds to take the punishment of ACC play.

Sharod Johnson, Freshman

Sharod’s a bit bigger at 170 pounds, and may be able to jump into the fray right away as a result. That’s if he’s called upon, of course. Babers will need to balance getting the new freshmen some valuable experience for next year, while keeping redshirts intact as needed.

Clay Austin, Senior

Austin contributed to special teams last year, and is likely to do the same in 2017. Inside receiver’s a crowded spot right now, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other places to lend a hand (or two).

K.K. Hahn, (Redshirt) Freshman

Hahn’s another likely special-teamer after redshirting last year. There’s not a lot of room in these receiving corps. for walk-ons. But Hahn could get there eventually with some solid work on kicks and punts.

Ben Brickman, Junior

Brickman’s abilities may actually come from his conditioning and blocking ability. Though he’s smaller, he’s a capable and strong runner. Still, likely a special teams slot for the JUCO transfer.

Tight Ends

Ravian Pierce, Junior

Pierce is a former 4-star recruit, and one that will make an immediate impact for the Orange this year. SU didn’t really use tight ends in 2016, but it shouldn’t be hard to find a spot for the 6-foot-3, 237 pound talent from Florida who caught 77 passes in the JUCO ranks. We saw glimpses of his ability in the spring game. But he likely has plenty more in store. Pierce could really change the way this offense runs -- especially in short yardage, taking stress off Dungey.

Kyle Kleinberg, Junior

The converted linebacker could be an asset blocking, and will likely hop in to run some actual routes here and there. He’s here in part as a redshirt buffer for Aaron Hackett, but you’ll see a good amount of him for the rare two-TE set, plus special teams contributions.

Aaron Hackett, Freshman

Hackett’s the heir apparent to Pierce here, but that’ll wait at least a year. As mentioned above, Kleinberg’s here to help prevent tossing Hackett into action automatically. But when the Venice, Fla. pass-catcher gets his eventual shot, it’ll be worth the wait. He’s 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds -- and that second number probably rises with time in a college weight room. That’s scary for opposing defenders.

Jesse Conners, (Redshirt) Freshman

Conners will redshirt after coming over from Holy Cross, but is someone who could surprise come 2018. He’s slightly smaller than Hackett, but may be quicker and showed his soft hands during the spring game. This year, he’s still very valuable as a practice opponent.

Joe Pasquale, Junior

Pasquale’s a big dude (6-foot-6, 244 pounds), which could give him some chances to see the field either as a blocker or on special teams. He’s a walk-on, so won’t be out there a ton, necessarily. Still, that size at least makes you want to see him hit a few people.

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

The receiver position’s not nearly as experienced as it was last season, but Dino Babers’s ability to get younger players on the field last year could now pay dividends. Erv and Ish are sure things, and (as mentioned) Pierce is a game changer. The key to this position group progressing past last year’s production, however, will be what we see from everyone else.

If some combination of Enoicy, Custis and Butler can find themselves in the 40 receptions range to supplement what the primary pass-catchers are putting up, this collection of wideouts could do even more damage compared to last year’s record-setting performance.