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Can Syracuse football improve on deep passes in 2018?

Numerous factors hurt deep balls in 2017 -- have we alleviated them?

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

On Tuesday, Pro Football Focus posted a stat about passer rating on deep throws among returning ACC quarterbacks. The list featured the top five players in the conference in that category: Chazz Surratt (North Carolina), Kelly Bryant (Clemson), Josh Jackson (Virginia Tech), Ryan Finley (NC State) and James Blackman (Florida State). You’ll notice the Syracuse Orange’s Eric Dungey doesn’t make the cut.

This isn’t to say Syracuse failed to complete deep passes during 2017. The Orange had 42 completions of 20 or more yards -- though that also includes runs after catch, which this metric does not. They had 22 of 30 or more yards (37th overall), but just eight of 40 or more. That last number is when you start getting into passes that are predominantly 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

During 2017, Dungey’s passer rating was 122.76, but his deep passer rating (not available) was not even above 88. While we don’t have that figure for 2016, you can bet it was likely higher given the fact that SU completed 16 passes of 40 yards or more (14th-best in FBS), 28 passes of 30 or more, and 47 passes of 20 or more. The obvious answer about the dip is the absence of Amba Etta-Tawo. But that’s not the whole story.

Syracuse’s offensive line was one issue, as the standard down sack rate was well into the bottom half of the country. The Orange allowed 32 sacks on the year (99th in FBS), which was actually an improvement from the 38 allowed the previous season. Dungey also ran 22 more times in 2017 than he did in 2016 (taking away from potential deep targets). But he threw 22 more passes in 2017 as well, to negate that. From a rating and accuracy standpoint, Dungey actually declined as a junior -- from 64.8 percent completions to 59.7, and from a 138.18 overall passer rating, to the aforementioned 122.76.

Some of that’s due to the line issues, injuries and a tendency to try and put the offense on his back, which sometimes led to fantastic results. However, some of it was also due to the team’s inability to get a capable deep threat going out wide.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse tried out Steve Ishmael, Devin Butler and Jamal Custis primarily at outside receiver. Ishmael did very well there, obviously, but also averaged 12.83 yards per catch; not necessarily big-play numbers. Etta-Tawo had 15.77 in 2016, which still wasn’t earth-shattering, but was top-100 in the country. Butler and Custis didn’t necessarily show themselves to be deep threats either in 2017, though the latter player did average 15 yards per catch (on eight receptions).

So without Ishmael, can things improve this year?

For one, Dungey will be healthy and hopefully opts to run less. That creates more opportunities for him in the deep passing game, and potentially keeps him from getting banged up, which decreases his effectiveness over time. Second, the offensive line improved late in the season last year, and with Aaron Roberts back and Texas A&M transfer Koda Martin in the fold, could take some big strides in 2018.

The biggest question, though, is at receiver. Syracuse loses 194 of its 320 receptions from last year, after Ishmael and Ervin Philips wrapped up their Orange careers. The returning player with the most potential to be deep threats this season seems to be Butler based on position and size, but there’s little proof there otherwise so far. That could put the focus on the freshmen.

Cameron Jordan and Russell Thompson-Bishop, both redshirt freshmen, are your top options there based on size. They’re both 6-foot-1 or taller, and both over 200 pounds. RTB, in particular, looks to fit into an Ishmael-type mold and currently weighs in at 217. Having his speed and physicality in space down the field could create some immediate opportunities to try more deep passes.

Summer arrival Ed Hendrix also presents possibilities there, as does Anthony Queeley. They’re both in the 6-foot-1 to 6-foot-3 range, and are pushing toward 200 pounds. That’s the sort of frame SU needs to go up and get deep passes. While we tried in 2017, that option simply wasn’t there consistently enough -- even from Ish. Without the deep ball threat, defenses were able to crowd the line of scrimmage to sniff out screens, short runs and Dungey scrambles. There simply wasn’t much variety -- dangerous in an offense that thrives on pulling defenders in to exploit opportunities over the top.

Without much experience at wideout, it’s going to be a struggle to improve here. However, the offensive line progress could help facilitate some more time for routes to develop. That doesn’t alleviate questions around the younger players’ hands or ability (more due to lack of experience than anything else). But it certainly helps. It may take a few games to get this aspect of the offense up and running this fall.