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Syracuse 2019 spring football preview: Wide receivers & tight ends

This could wind up being a pretty exciting year for the Orange pass-catchers.

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

The Syracuse Orange added 21 players in the class of 2019, and with that, we get to officially turn the page to next season. Spring practice starts on Sunday, March 3 and the spring game will be on April 13. Ahead of that, we’re previewing each position group on the roster.

Last week, we looked at the running back position and how the run game may actually be even better for 2019. Next up:

How will SU’s quarterback change affect the team’s collection of young pass-catchers?

Who’s gone?

A couple notable veterans graduated in wide receiver Jamal Custis and Ravian Pierce, plus walk-on Ben Brickman. Tight end Gabe Horan was medically disqualified and Devin Butler opted to transfer.

Custis was the team’s leading receiver last year with 51 grabs for 906 yards and six scores. Following four years plagued by injury, it was great to see the athletic Philadelphia product get his chance to shine. He’ll be doing the same for potential pro employers this week at the NFL Scouting Combine too.

Pierce came into last year with plenty of hype, but only collected 16 catches for 105 yards and three touchdowns. Still, it’s lost experience at a tight end position that doesn’t get the credit it deserves within this offense.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Boston College Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s on campus?

A ton of production from last year. Sean Riley returns for his senior season and is the most experienced player in the wide receivers corps. He finally seemed to carve out a nice role for himself in last year’s offense, catching 64 passes for 756 yards and three TDs. He’ll be joined by fellow top receivers Nykeim Johnson and Taj Harris, plus Sharod Johnson and Trishton Jackson — the latter of whom got his first work for SU in the bowl game after sitting out last season following his transfer from Michigan State.

Scholarship players you’ll also see this spring: Aaron Hackett, Russell Thompson-Bishop, Cameron Jordan, Anthony Queeley, Ed Hendrix, Cooper Lutz and 2019 signee Courtney Jackson, who enrolled this spring. Among the many walk-ons Dino Babers has added on the outside: Ethan Fischler, James Cherry, Kevin Johnson Jr. and Jesse Conners.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Tight end Luke Benson is the only arrival we’re waiting on.

Who takes over the leading receiver role?

Custis may not have caught the most passes (that honor would belong to Riley), but he did pick up the most receiving yards on the team. That’s still something Syracuse is going to have to replace in 2019. Based on early returns, Harris is one of your best candidate there, as he has a nice blend of speed and size to be used in various parts of the field and already excels as a route runner. While he never had a “breakout” game last year, that could change as the team’s primary downfield option this fall.

The other player to watch is Trishton Jackson, who had three catches for 27 yards and a TD in the Camping World Bowl and is likely to be a frequent target give his own size/speed combo. If Syracuse can put both Harris and Jackson on the outside, it’s going to be very hard to keep up with the passing game. Speaking of...

Who reaps the most benefits in a passing game more focused on deep balls?

As discussed during the quarterbacks preview, the vertical passing game is likely to be a bigger part of the offense with Tommy DeVito under center than it ever was with Eric Dungey. That doesn’t mean the short passing game will be ignored at all. But it’s likely to open up big-play opportunities downfield that weren’t there before.

Harris and Jackson seem primed to be the biggest beneficiaries there, and an offseason’s worth of work with DeVito should have them perfectly in sync. Same goes for Nykeim Johnson, when he’s used on the outside (as mentioned, he’s versatile). Though Hendrix was out with an injury all of last season, we could also see some deep passing routes in the playbook for the former four-star.

Camping World Bowl - West Virginia v Syracuse Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

How will the tight end position be used in 2019?

The tight end position doesn’t get a ton of love when discussing Babers’s up-tempo spread attack, but it plays a key role in blocking both on run and pass plays and could be a huge part of the team’s potential improvement in the red zone this year.

While Pierce was a pass-catcher slotted into a blocking role more often than not, the team’s current tight ends are all a bit more blocking focused with the ability to catch passes. Hackett has the versatility to do both very well, and you’ll likely see a lot of him inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. There’s potential for two-tight end sets as well, with Hackett lining up with tight end/fullback Chris Elmore or new arrival Luke Benson.

Hackett and Benson provide a lot of versatility at the position with receiver-type size, and having them in roles that allow for blocking or receiving benefits the offense and makes for more opportunities out of the same look.

Which “new” receiver surprises this time around?

Two of the three seasons under Babers have featured some sort of unforeseen breakout by a player not on our radars going into the year. This time around, there are a few candidates for the role: Hendrix, RTB, Queeley and Jordan (Trishton Jackson doesn’t count because we expect things of him already).

If I’m betting on one of those players, it’s potentially RTB. Not because I don’t buy Hendrix living up to the four-star billing (I actually do). But the stories of how Thompson-Bishop and DeVito have been friends since they were recruited and since roomed together stick with me enough to think that chemistry translates on the field too and helps the redshirt sophomore wideout start to approach his potential.