After a highly disappointing 5-7 season, there are probably a lot of you that would rather not look back at 2019 for the Syracuse Orange football team. But before we move forward into what we hope is a much better 2020, it’s worth taking stock of what’s occurred.
For this week and next, we’re going position by position recapping SU’s year to see what worked, what didn’t, and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or in many cases, a lack thereof). On Wednesday, we discussed running backs. Today, it’s...
Wide receivers and tight ends
During the simpler times of July and August, we were high on numerous aspects of this Orange team — but perhaps none as much as the wide receivers group, which featured the returning experience and production to potentially help Tommy DeVito and the passing game along. Unfortunately, we forgot you need time to throw to get the ball to those players. And Syracuse play-calling didn’t bother with screens enough to counter the pressure DeVito faced all year.
Just a season after four different players caught between 40 and 64 passes for SU, just one caught more than 40 in 2019. Michigan State transfer Trishton Jackson had given us a glimpse of what he could do while playing in last year’s Camping World Bowl, then became the go-to target in week one this fall, though didn’t start hauling in passes as intended until week two. Jackson caught 66 passes for 1,023 yards and 11 scores. All of those single-season totals were among the best in Syracuse history.
Like many leading Orange receivers before him, Jackson showed himself able to excel both downfield and close to the line of scrimmage, finding separation and mismatches in various parts of the field. Despite the strong totals above, he could’ve put up even better numbers too. After some struggles with drops early, he settled down, but with relapses here and there. Syracuse didn’t really use the middle of the field much in the passing game. When they tried to, however, Jackson was typically the target.
Aside from Jackson — himself inconsistent at times — the rest of the receivers were seemingly hot and cold to extremes. Following a strong freshman campaign, Taj Harris had big swings from being uninvolved to looking like a focal point. He caught 13 passes for 128 yards in his final two games, which certainly helps boost numbers. But otherwise, 37 grabs for 559 yards and two touchdowns. Harris’s frustration with much of the year’s play-calling and decision-making shows part of what could’ve been. A full season with him on the same page with DeVito could look a lot more like the year we just saw Jackson put together.
Perhaps the biggest bummer on the entire offense was the season we saw (or didn’t) from Sean Riley. Though he seemed to break out as a junior in the slot, this year’s inability to utilize inside receivers made both Riley and Nykeim Johnson virtually disappear. Riley did have 36 receptions, but I can’t recall any of them and just six of them occurred in November (and just one over the final three games).
For Johnson, the drop-off was far more drastic, as he caught just 19 passes for 99 yards, finishing his season unceremoniously ejected for shoving an official.
The fact that both players vanished could in part be due to DeVito not going through his progressions and play-calling not utilizing screens to combat pressure. In any case, having neither player involved in the offense certainly seemed to limit what the passing game could do compared to previous years that would utilize short and quick throws to much success.
Beyond the emergence of running backs catching passes (55 total from that group this year), the other big surprise was the involvement of tight ends as more than just blockers. When not being utilized to help keep DeVito upright on passing plays, Syracuse’s tight ends were key safety valves and — in the case of Aaron Hackett, particularly — excellent red zone targets the likes of which Dino Babers’s offenses have rarely utilized.
Hackett finished the year with 23 receptions for 205 yards and six scores, making most of his catches in short yardage and red zone situations. The big target seemed to be a no-brainer inside the 20, and when SU’s offense was moving well in that part of the field, he was typically a part of it.
As for Luke Benson, he’s going to be an exciting player as his career continues. With an interesting mix of speed and size, he creates mismatches all over the field and has already showed off what he can do with some space to operate. Though his eight catches don’t sound like a lot, they went for 176 yards and three touchdowns. If we see more two-tight end sets next year, Benson should be heavily involved.
Looking at the sum of the receivers this year, you see glimmers of what could’ve been, but only one complete picture (in Jackson). Like everything else with this offense, however, it’s equal parts individual execution, DeVito decision-making, play-calling and offensive line failures that make up the full story. The drops were a factor too, though less of one as the season wore on.
For next year, this is a group that should be better, but again, provided that the other factors mentioned above progress with them. Jackson could be a preseason All-American and Harris has plenty of breakout potential. If Syracuse improves back to bowl eligibility for 2020, part of that probably rests on how well these wideouts can help DeVito improve, too. Luckily, they seem to have the talent to do so.