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Syracuse football 2018 report card: Wide receivers and tight ends

There was no record-setting this year, but that was just fine.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange football program finished 10-3 in 2018 — the first time SU’s done as much since 2001. So while these postseason reviews typically end up skewing toward what went wrong, hopefully this is the first of many seasons in a row where we get to happily recap what went very right.

Despite winning 10 games, though, it’s not as if things were perfect. These “report cards” serve as an assessment of both good and bad. Looking back at the past season, we’re going position by position, to see what worked, what didn’t and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or in rare cases, lack thereof). Hopefully you enjoy. And why wouldn’t you? We have a top-25 team to root for again.

Yesterday, we talked running backs. Next up:

Wide receivers and tight ends

Most of Syracuse football’s pass-catching records fell over the course of Dino Babers’s first two years at the helm. Without much of a run game, the Orange ran a pass-happy offense that went heavy on screens and leaned on a group of veteran receivers. Amba Etta-Tawo, Steve Ishmael and Ervin Philips established a standard that receivers would continually strive for in the years to follow. They did in 2018, albeit as a group, rather than individually.

One of the most glaring issues with Syracuse’s receivers in 2016 and 2017 was how top-heavy the group was. A few choice wideouts caught all of the passes, and Eric Dungey (or whoever was under center) didn’t really look in many other directions. But with time to throw this year and no clear-cut “BEST” option, things looked a whole lot different in year three of Babers’s system.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Four different players caught between 40 and 64 passes. Another four (two of them running backs) caught between 13 and 16 balls on the year. Five different players had at least three receiving touchdowns, but none had more than six. This was a balanced group that kept opposing defenses off-balance by never playing favorites (as previous offenses had done).

The contributions came from sources both expected and not so much, too. Coming into the year, you might have been able to predict Jamal Custis (51 catches for 906 yards and six scores) or maybe even Sean Riley breaking out at slot receiver (64/756/3). But Nykeim Johnson came on strong with a 41/565/4 line, and freshman Taj Harris might have established himself as a future No. 1 wideout with a similar 40/565/3 of his own.

Harris, in particular, looked the part of someone who could at some point break all of those records once more. On paper, he doesn’t seem overly big at 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds. Yet the New Jersey native ran routes extremely well, fought for balls, got physical with defenders and progressed a bit on blocking too. You can see above that he did not have the loudest stat line by any means, but by the UNC game, he was a fixture in everything this passing game did.

With that emergence also came the descent of another player, in Devin Butler. Butler’s a great blocker, and a veteran presence. However, his hands simply weren’t up to the job — especially once Harris emerged. The junior still wound up with 14 catches for 126 yards on the year. None of those came in the season’s final four games, however.

Speaking of a lower usage rate, the tight end spot seemed pretty important coming into this season, yet failed to really register. That was due in part to Ravian Pierce missing three games with injury. But the position was called into action to pass block once more, and the emergence of the run game meant needing that safety valve less than it used to. Pierce had 16 catches for 105 yards and three TDs just the same. Though the blocking-centric role occupied by guys like Aaron Hackett and Gabe Horan (total of five receptions for 50 yards and two scores) may be the way this position looks going forward — as it did when Babers was with Bowling Green before SU.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond the tight end changes, the other big shift was away from screens being the primary source of receptions. There were still plenty of those, mind you, and it’s how Riley and Nykeim Johnson got a good deal of their work. However, with more protection, Dungey had the time to complete more throws at mid-range distance (something he hadn’t, necessarily, before). That didn’t open up the middle of the field, mind you. But Harris seemed to be the receiver most likely to do that in the select moments it occurred.

We say plenty around here about Dungey’s lack of deep-ball ability and the downfield passing game taking a backseat — both of which were true this year. Though aided by some nice runs after the catch, Syracuse was still one of the better teams in the country in terms of deep passing plays (16th in gains of 30-plus yards, 12th in gains of 40-plus). It could’ve been more too if not for some drops and misfires. No one on the 2019 roster has the size Custis does, but a few of them are probably a bit more capable to physically fight off defenders. With a better deep ball from Tommy DeVito, that could make for a much more aggressive passing attack.

Babers has built a ton of depth on the outside with this team, and that was evident this year by the number of players getting involved. Next year could be a similar approach of top-receiver-by-committee given the long list of players that weren’t even included in this piece (hi, Trishton Jackson!). And if it is, that may end up being the best approach (long-term) for a young quarterback like DeVito trying to feel his way around the offense.

Grade: B