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Syracuse 2018 spring football preview: Wide receivers & tight ends

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After a couple veteran-heavy years, SU embraces the youth movement.

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We’re just days away from the unofficial start of the 2018 Syracuse Orange football season when spring practice begins on March 3. Practice runs all the way through April 13, when SU hosts its spring game on a Friday night.

Back in December, we took a very early look at the potential offensive and defensive depth charts for 2018. Now, we’re digging into each position to preview what could happen this spring and how that prepares SU for this fall. If you missed last week’s topic, here’s our running backs preview.

Today’s topic:

Which of Syracuse’s young wide receivers step up?

Who’s on campus?

Well, last year’s top two receivers (and the top two receivers in SU history, number-wise) — Steve Ishmael and Ervin Philips -- are gone, which means it’s a reset at the receiver position for the first time in years. Devin C. Butler (are we still using the C now?), Sean Riley and Jamal Custis are your top returning receivers, and Ravian Pierce is your best returning tight end.

Behind them is a lot of potential talent, that currently has a whole lot of inexperience. Sophomore Nykiem Johnson caught eight passes for 68 yards, but everyone else hasn’t taken a snap yet. That group includes Russell Thompson-Bishop, Cameron Jordan and Sharod Johnson. Michigan State transfer Trishton Jackson is here for spring, but won’t be eligible to play in-game until 2019.

The tight end position has depth, without much experience. Aaron Hackett’s the only scholarship player beyond Pierce there, but Holy Cross transfer Jesse Conners could get himself on the field too, after sitting out 2017.

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Who’s arriving this summer?

MOAR RECEIVERS. Four-star Edward Hendrix is joined by Cooper Lutz, Anthony Queeley and Taj Harris. Most could probably redshirt this season. But at the same time, there are so many question marks about the talent actually on the roster right now. If a true frosh shows he’s ready this summer, Dino likely gives him a shot.

Who are your starters?

It’s the first time we’ve really had to ask this question in a few years. But if I had to guess right now, Butler and Custis take the outside spots, and Riley and Nykiem Johnson end up on the inside. That’s not really interesting, but it’s the probable outcome from spring given experience levels and all.

Still, there are opportunities for other players to work in there. RTB, Jordan, and Sharod Johnson are all contenders to jump up despite redshirting last year. There’s also the opportunity that Dontae Strickland switches over to wideout if Moe Neal can improve his blocking and ability to identify defenses. Strickland caught 18 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns last year. He has good hands. It would also give the younger receivers a bit more time to develop if needed.

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Is Ravian Pierce due for a breakout year?

He very well could be. Earlier this month, Julian Whigham was talking about how effective Pierce was in certain games, and the offense sort of following his lead there in terms of production. Where Pierce typically got bogged down was either with penalties (he got flagged pretty regularly) or getting caught up in blocking. Blocking is one way to use Pierce well, of course, but he is an impressive pass-catcher, hauling in 29 balls for 263 yards and four scores last year. When we used him in or near the red zone, it created a new dimension for the passing game, creating mismatches between his big frame and smaller defensive backs.

With a lot of inexperience at wideout this year, Pierce could be used as a bit of a safety valve for Eric Dungey. Even on short passes, he can do some damage because of his combination of size and speed. You didn’t see the same sort of short passing success from Syracuse in 2017 as we had in 2016, but some of that was a blocking issue. If Pierce is freed up to operate just beyond the line of scrimmage, it could create a renewed emphasis on screens and shorter routes that subbed for the run game in just picking up short yardage and maintaining momentum.

Which freshmen separate themselves?

Sharod Johnson traveled with the team every week last year, and could be a sleeper to grab one of the inside receiver spots. Jordan and RTB also have great size, both 6-foot-1 or taller, and weighing over 200 pounds, and may be ready to take on large roles at the outside receiver spots if Custis gets injured or Butler isn’t able to step up and be the primary option.

The progress that Sharod, Jordan and RTB (plus Nykiem Johnson) make this spring should give us somewhat of an idea of how we’re looking at the receiver position going into the fall. If they look to be struggling with the speed of the offense or some of the downfield blocking assignments, it may open up a larger competition this summer.

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Are Butler and Riley ready to shine?

We know Custis is able to be a core part of this offense when he’s healthy, but some questions do linger about Butler and Riley, both going into their junior seasons. Butler shows flashes of real ability, even if not as a super dynamic playmaker. And his trick play abilities (4-of-6 passing for 54 yards and a touchdown) have made him a versatile contributor. But he drops the ball pretty regularly, and it’s hard to remember more than a handful of his 33 catches from last year. If he’s not up to the task at the outside spot, this offense is going to be in trouble from a big play perspective.

Riley has similar questions, and his numbers from 2017 largely lean on the Central Michigan game (eight touches for 129 yards). We know he has the speed to outrun most defenders, but he can’t just be expected to replicate Philips’s production. Riley’s significantly smaller (5-foot-8, 151 pounds), so that sort of beating is not going to work. This is where Strickland may be a solution, even if it just means he catches more passes out of the backfield.

Could we see more of Jesse Conners than you’d think this year?

Long-time observers know that I usually have an idea that I won’t come off of every season. Of late, it’s been the idea that Custis should be posting up defenders in the back of the end zone, but seeing that he’ll be a key part of this year’s offense, that’s not such a fringe concept anymore.

So based on nothing other than some impressive work in last year’s spring game, I’m going to say that Conners becomes an interesting jack-of-all-trades for this squad. Not necessarily a “hybrid,” but something resembling what we had in Ben Lewis a few years ago. Conners has good hands and speed. He could probably run jet sweeps if we forced him to do so (please, no). Pierce is clearly a big body at tight end, and we need to use that. But Conners could serve as a change of pace and another quality option in five-wide sets.