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How does Trishton Jackson’s departure affect Syracuse’s passing game?

Certainly not a small absence...

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Last week’s news that Syracuse Orange wide receiver Trishton Jackson would be foregoing his final year of eligibility in favor of the NFL Draft creates some early shockwaves for the 2020 season. Despite some struggles here and there this past season, the Orange receiving corps was poised to be an experienced group, with Jackson likely getting plenty of preseason hype. Now, not so much.

Obviously the passing game is going to look different without Jackson. But how so? We’ll have a full offensive depth chart look on Tuesday. But in the meantime, a more in-depth look at the changes coming to receivers and how SU throws the ball:

Who’s Tommy DeVito’s go-to target?

Last year, Jackson got the lion’s share of targets from DeVito right from day one, and it was clear he had a preferred target. While the former Michigan State wideout caught 66 passes, no one else caught more than 37 (and the target numbers were even more disparate).

The obvious choice for “next man up” is Taj Harris, who had an impressive freshman campaign back in 2018 and then wound up holding pretty steady with his numbers in 2019 despite some struggles at points in the year. Though he has a slightly slimmer build at 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds, Harris has still shown himself a capable downfield receiver with sure hands and an ability to pick up chunks of yards after the catch.

Though SU lacked a real deep threat last year — in part due to offensive line struggles not allowing DeVito enough time to throw — Jackson was the closest option they had there, and it would’ve been a greater part of his game for 2020. Harris has yet to really show himself that capable and consistent downfield option. But he’ll likely need to be. Unless...

DeVito could be forced to spread the ball around a bit more

Like we mentioned above, DeVito relied pretty heavily on Jackson. The redshirt junior responded accordingly most games, but it also made the passing game highly predictable at times while defenses could pretty much ignore Nykeim Johnson and Sean Riley (and did for large stretches).

Losing his top receiver could actually have a positive affect for DeVito’s development, though, much like it did for Eric Dungey in 2018. Following the departures of Steve Ishmael and Ervin Philips, Dungey had to start from scratch in building a rapport with the receivers group. The result? A varied passing game, no “go-to” and a lot of players getting involved and gaining experience.

The same could be true this year as SU once again has some marginal experience but a lot of youth at the receiver spot. Harris’s role obviously grows and Nykeim Johnson’s going to (hopefully) step back into being a bigger part of the offense as the team’s main slot receiver. But beyond them, it’s largely a blank slate. Anthony Queeley and Courtney Jackson seem like reasonable candidates to step up, and if healthy, we could finally get an in-game look at former four-star pass-catcher Ed Hendrix. The most recent class has also added some potential names like Damien Alford, who could get involved. Jawhar Jordan could also get some looks at receiver while the running back depth chart clears up.

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

More throwing the ball to running backs

After largely avoiding utilizing the running backs in the passing game for the first three years of the Dino Babers era (with some exceptions here and there), Syracuse seemed to lean into that a bit more in 2019 — especially to help deal with the constant blitz DeVito faced. Moe Neal caught 29 passes while Abdul Adams caught 15 balls. Jarven Howard (nine catches) and the aforementioned Jawhar Jordan (two receptions) also chipped in.

We’ll likely see more of the same sort of screen game this year, as the latter three of those names return, and freshman Sean Tucker seems like a speedy option that could be plugged in too. That’s a crowded backfield already, of course, so we’ll see how certain rushers are utilized. Adams and Howard seem like the top two options for now, and Garrison Johnson’s a big back who’s likely to see time. Jordan’s an interesting player because while he’ll certainly be capable as a runner, he could help temporarily fill a gap at slot receiver. Assuming the offensive line still has some of the same issues with giving SU time to throw in 2020, dump-offs to running backs could be even more important to keeping the offense going.

The two-tight end set seems like it’s becoming a thing

Syracuse already laid some of the groundwork for this in the past, deploying Ravian Pierce and Aaron Hackett at times in 2018, and Hackett and Luke Benson in 2019. Now, a lot of this depends on whether or not they’ll need the extra player for pass protection. But having two bigger targets like Hackett and Benson — or new additions like Maximilian Mang or Steven Mahar — out there seems to be the way this thing is going.

DeVito didn’t use the tight ends as a safety valve enough last year, and part of that was because they were so tied up blocking. If they’re not, there are mismatches all over for that list of big but athletic tight ends to exploit. Hackett’s proven what he can do. I feel like we only got a small sample of what Benson brings to the table (and those moments were great). Even without it necessarily increasing tight end targets, a two-tight end set may just wind up helping the run game and also helping deal with the lack of experience at wideout right now.