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ACC football 2018 position preview: Wide receivers & tight ends

Syracuse hits reset. What about everyone else in the conference?

NCAA Football: Virginia at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange’s passing attack has been one of the best in the country since Dino Babers arrived, but in year three, SU will have a hard reset at the wide receiver position. Gone are career receiving leaders Steve Ishmael and Ervin Philips. In comes a whole lot of uncertainty with an inexperienced and young group of pass-catchers to take their place. If you believe in this system, though, there’s a breakthrough on the horizon for a few names we haven’t heard much from yet. If not, it could be the offense’s most challenging season yet under Babers.

Along with our Syracuse position group previews each week, we’ll also take a look at the rest of the ACC’s respective situations. Which teams are in the best shape? And the worst? And how does Syracuse stack up comparatively? Today:

ACC Football 2018 Wide Receivers/Tight Ends Preview

Last year’s top performers

Ishmael was the class of the conference, with 105 catches for 1,347 yards and seven scores, and the only a handful of players were even in the same conversation at all. NC State’s Kelvin Harmon had 69 catches (nice) for 1,017 yards and four touchdowns, making him the only other ACC wideout to top the 1,000-yard mark. Virginia’s Olamide Zaccheaus (85) and Erv Philips (89) were the only other players to top 80 catches in the league.

Still, there were other excellent players who put in fine seasons, even without the gaudy stat lines (and some of that was due to injury). Louisville’s Jaylen Smith came just short of 1,000 yards, as did Virginia Tech’s Cam Phillips. Florida State’s Auden Tate led the ACC in receiving touchdowns with 10, while four others players (Cam Serigne, Braxton Berrios, Dez Fitzpatrick and Greg Dortch) each had nine.

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

Who will excel in 2018?

Miami’s Ahmmon Richards basically played half a season (if even) last year, so his 24 catches are hardly indicative of what he can do in year two with Malik Rosier at quarterback. And despite the absence of Lamar Jackson at Louisville, their fleet of quality receivers (Smith, Fitzpatrick, Seth Dawkins) should be able to put up quality numbers in an offense that could be a little more passing-focused this season.

With the conference’s best quarterback in Ryan Finley, it’s bound to elevate the receivers and lucky for the senior, he’ll throw to experienced targets like Harmon, Jakobi Meyers and Stephen Louis (combined 169 catches last year). Dortch missed a bunch of 2017 for Wake Forest, but he’s back now and should be able to take up primary target duties for the Deacons. Don’t sleep on Syracuse’s Ravian Pierce or Boston College’s Tommy Sweeney, however. Both have NFL size and will be key to their respective teams’ passing games.

Top three units: 1. Louisville, 2. NC State, 3. Miami

Louisville’s glut of experience stands out quite a bit, as Smith, Fitzpatrick and Dawkins now slot into an attack that’s likely going to target them a lot more. Fitzpatrick is also just a sophomore, so he should be able to expand upon last year’s 45-catch, 699-yard performance — even if he can’t score nine touchdowns again. Miami may lose its top two receivers from last year, but Richards coming back healthy is a huge boost. Jeff Thomas and Lawrence Cager have quite a bit of speed on the outside, which should pair well with the Hurricanes’ strong run game.

State’s wideouts could end up putting up the biggest numbers, however. Finley was able to get the ball to all three starters without issue last year, and that was with additional catches (112) going to the departed Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hines. Other players step up to fill those roles, obviously. But there are receptions to dole out to the returning players for sure.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Bottom three units: 12. Pittsburgh, 13. Boston College, 14. Georgia Tech

Pitt doesn’t have a bad group of receivers. Rather, it lost its best player (Jester Weah) and doesn’t have much in the way of replacements. Rafael Araujo-Lopes should help there as he led the team in catches last year, with 43. Maurice French also caught 25 in 2017. There’s a lot of youth here, though, which could be an odd pairing with young QB Kenny Pickett.

BC’s leading receiver last year was Sweeney, with 36 receptions, and the team’s goal this season is probably to just run A.J. Dillon down everyone’s throat. Still, they’ll need to pass at least a little bit to keep teams from stacking the box. Speaking of... Georgia Tech really brings back nothing at receiver and it doesn’t really matter. The Wreck’s offense is at least a little more effective when there’s a player to throw to and keep defenses honest, though. Perhaps Qua Searcy (four catches for 130 yards) becomes that guy this year.

Top five wide receivers in ACC:

  1. Ahmmon Richards, Miami
  2. Jaylen Smith, Louisville
  3. Kelvin Harmon, NC State
  4. Greg Dortch, Wake Forest
  5. Hunter Renfrow, Clemson

Top three tight ends in ACC:

  1. Ravian Pierce, Syracuse
  2. Tommy Sweeney, Boston College
  3. Daniel Helm, Duke
NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Where does Syracuse rank?

In the bottom half of the conference (the 9-11 range), but a lot of that’s based on the inexperience currently on the roster. Pierce could have a monster season if he’s not pulled into blocking duty the way he was this past season, and Nykeim Johnson has the speed to be a real difference-maker in the way that Erv was as well. If Devin Butler and/or Sean Riley arrive at their potential, it’s once again a pretty strong group. This year may be more about great play as a group, however, than individual records. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for a Syracuse team that relied way too heavily on just two wideouts last year.