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Syracuse football 2018 position preview: Wide receivers & tight ends

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How do you replace THIS much production?

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

The 2018 Syracuse Orange football season sits less than a month and a half from today. So at this point, we’re obviously onto position previews for each group on this year’s SU roster.

Each week leading up to kickoff, we’re profiling one group and every player suiting up at that position this Fall. Last week, we talked running backs. This time, we move onto:

Wide receivers & tight ends

In two years under Dino Babers, Syracuse’s offense has become one of the country’s most prolific passing units, and as a result, vaulted its wide receivers to stardom. Both Amba Etta-Tawo and Steve Ishmael have received All-American honors already, while Ervin Philips become one of the nation’s top targets as well. The challenge for the Orange this season is that none of those players are on the roster anymore, and there’s a whole lot of inexperience left behind. Now we’ll see if it’s the system or the players within it that put up the video game numbers.

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

Wide receivers

Devin Butler, Junior

Butler had a productive, albeit inconsistent sophomore season with 33 catches for 327 yards and one score. However, half of those catches come from just three games, and he also had six games with two or fewer grabs — and that’s without mentioning the drops. While he’s a tall receiver (6-foot-3), he doesn’t necessarily have the same sort of size and length that Etta-Tawo and Ishmael both possessed on the outside. Syracuse needs a reliable deep ball threat. If this pass game is going to be more efficient, Butler’s going to have to be the answer there.

Jamal Custis, (Redshirt) Senior

I’ve long had a campaign for Custis to be more involved in the downfield passing game, but he’s just never been able to stay healthy enough throughout his career at SU. And while last year had its high points (including a 47-yard touchdown grab vs. Florida State), Custis still struggled to stay on the field and only logged eight receptions for 120 yards. In late spring, he moved inside to try and create some more mismatches. It’s a shift that might create some interesting new opportunities for the 6-foot-5 target.

Nykeim Johnson, Sophomore

The heir apparent to Philips’s gaudy reception totals in short yardage. Nykeim’s a shifty runner at 5-foot-8 and we already saw glimpses of his potential last year when he caught eight passes for 68 yards in limited action. That experience should pay off this year, as he’ll likely slot in as the team’s top inside receiver. I’d argue he’s the biggest breakout candidate of this receiver group.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Riley, Junior

After a four-catch, 82-yard performance against Central Michigan that looked like Riley’s coming out party, there was the drop vs. LSU in the end zone and then just three more catches the rest of the year. Riley’s one of the fastest players on this team but has yet to find a rhythm at wideout (while he excels as a return man). You’ll mostly see him in four receiver sets as the second inside option.

Russell Thompson-Bishop, (Redshirt) Freshman

There’s a lot to like about RTB, who at 6-foot-1 and 217 pounds seems poised to out-muscle some defenders and maybe create mismatches with linebackers too (the spring depth chart lined him up inside). Given the questions around who gets the ball this year, you’ll likely see a lot of him early, though he’s really the future favorite target of Tommy DeVito. I can’t find the video, but the two already seem in sync on deep passes downfield.

Sharod Johnson, (Redshirt) Freshman

Johnson’s 5-foot-11, 170-pound build makes him seem more suited to the slot, but like last year he’s positioned on the outside again for 2018. Sharod’s quick, which will help him make up for the lack of size advantage on corners. If Butler isn’t working out in his role, this could be your next man up there.

Cameron Jordan, (Redshirt) Freshman

... Or perhaps it’s Jordan, instead. More than most on the roster, he fits the typical body type of a Babers system downfield threat (6-foot-3, 202 pounds), and seems like a matchup nightmare with some great speed on the outside. Sharod’s main advantage is traveling with the team last year. Jordan’s definitely seeing snaps in any case this season, though.

Trishton Jackson, Junior

We could probably use the experienced Michigan State transfer this year, but next season could work out just as well. Jackson’s a former four-star recruit and a quick, taller receiver on the outside that could help 2019 go a bit smoother. In the meantime, he’s a potential resource for the collection of young talent on this roster.

Ed Hendrix, Freshman

If any true frosh receiver sees the field this year, it’s probably Hendrix. The four-star recruit was one of the best players in the class for Syracuse and comes to campus at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds with great hands. The names above him likely get first crack at proving themselves. But SU’s not at the point where they can afford to leave talent on the bench. He’ll play if he’s one of the best available.

Anthony Queeley, Freshman

Another one of the many big targets brought in by the Orange in the class fo 2018. Queeley’s Florida experience (he’s from Orlando) shows he’s no stranger to speed and that could help him see the field early too. Whether we see them in action this year or next, though, SU has a ton of talent at receiver to call upon.

Cooper Lutz, Freshman

Future New England Patriot Cooper Lutz has all the makings of creating havoc in the future. Like all of the other recent additions, he’s strong, quick and can likely excel in the slot. This could be a redshirt season, though don’t necessarily bank on him going that route just yet either.

Taj Harris, Freshman

Harris is on SU’s growing list of tall receivers you can throw it downfield to and let them go get it. At 175 pounds he may need to add a little weight, but the New Jersey product has time to do that given the long list of receivers currently on the roster.

Ben Brickman, Senior

Brickman, a former U.S. Marine, gets one more year with Syracuse and seems like a potential candidate for an extra scholarship spot depending on what the staff decides to do with it. Beyond that, he’ll likely get some special teams work.

K.K. Hahn, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Hahn’s lone action last year was against CCSU, and he might be relegated to the Wagner game this year in terms of chances to log some real minutes. Still in the meantime, there’s a chance on special teams.

Tyler Gilfus, (Redshirt) Sophomore

The local walk-on has a steep climb up the depth chart in front of him to see time at wideout. There’s no stopping him from being a major special teams contributor, however (especially on the hands team).

Kevin Johnson Jr., Freshman

Yes, son of THAT Kevin Johnson. Despite interest from schools like Florida and Colorado, the younger Kevin arrives as a walk-on this season after spending his senior year at IMG Academy. He has receiver size already at 190 pounds. There’s a good chance he earns a scholarship sooner rather than later.

Ethan Fischler, Freshman

One of the newest additions to the Orange, Fischler’s a California native and smaller receiver at 162 pounds (still six feet tall, though). He’d appear to be a likely redshirt as a walk-on this season.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Tight ends

Ravian Pierce, Senior

Dino Babers’s offenses have rarely put tight ends to much use as a receiving threat, but they’ve also rarely had a talent like Pierce. Despite being pulled into blocking duty regularly last season, the JUCO transfer still had 29 catches for 263 yards and four touchdowns for the Orange. This year, with a more experienced and healthy line, you’d think that he gets more opportunities in the open field. At 6-foot-3 and 244 pounds, he could be this offense’s most dangerous weapon sneaking in between opposing lines and their linebackers.

Aaron Hackett, Sophomore

Hackett got some experience on special teams last year, and now could figure into the passing game a bit more. If Custis ends up slotting inside, that could create some two TE sets between him and Pierce. Though Hackett is nearly as big and could create similar concerns.

Gabe Horan, Freshman

Gabe played both tight end and offensive tackle at C.W. Baker, but he’ll begin his time at SU as a tight end even if that doesn’t stick down the road. If he remains a potential passing target though, the 6-foot-6 and 260-pounder could provide a unique wrinkle to this offense.

Kyle Kleinberg, Senior

Kleinberg’s carved out a big role on special teams over the years, and that one’s likely to continue in 2018. With three scholarship tight ends ahead of him, it seems unlikely he’ll be able to break through on offense (that’s not a bad thing given his importance elsewhere).

Jesse Conners, (Redshirt) Sophomore

After a redshirt season following a transfer from Holy Cross, Conners jumps into action this season. While the walk-on could struggle to see the field right away, I do see him as an interesting H-back type of player that could force his way into more action come next year.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Replacing well over 50 percent of your receptions from the previous season is tough for any team — especially one like Syracuse that’s not necessarily stocked with blue-chippers to replace them. But it has worked for Babers before, and I’m willing to bet it does again.

Experience is still at a premium for this group, and it could make for some early growing pains. With luck, however, removing the long-time safety blankets for QB Eric Dungey ends up creating a more balanced offense this season. We may not see a 90-catch effort this season, and that’s fine. It’s almost preferable that Syracuse ends up with four or five guys that each catch 50-60 passes instead.