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Syracuse football 2019 position preview: Wide receivers/tight ends

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This group’s experience could go a long way toward Tommy DeVito’s success.

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The 2019 Syracuse Orange football season is actually getting pretty close, so it’s safe to dive into position previews for each group on this year’s SU roster.

Each week leading up to the season, we’re profiling one group and every player that could make an impact (of any sort) this fall. Last time around, we talked about Syracuse’s running backs and how they have more depth than the Orange have seen in years. This week:

Wide receivers and tight ends

Perhaps no position has looked as impressive, from top to bottom, as the wide receivers since Dino Babers arrived. In his first two seasons, Syracuse wideouts like Amba Etta-Tawo, Steve Ishmael and Ervin Philips blew away every existing school record, yet last year, no such thing occurred... which may have been to SU’s benefit. Forced to operate without a primary target, the Orange passing game spread the love around with four different players catching at least 40 balls. While total receptions were way down, yards only took a small step back, and the passing game proved more efficient — so a net positive for the group, even without flashier counting stats.

This season, that greater efficiency could come in handy with a quarterback (Tommy DeVito) potentially more reliant on the deep ball than his predecessor. Syracuse should still spread the ball around quite a bit even with that shift, however. The biggest question will be whether or not they can a) do that without Jamal Custis and b) get enough time to let that deep throws develop.

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Wide receivers

Sean Riley, Senior

We’ve long known Riley’s prominence as a return man, but his receiving results were a little more questionable over his first two years (things back longingly at the TD drop at LSU). That certainly wasn’t the case last year, however, when he broke out for a team-high 64 catches — including four or more in 10 of SU’s 13 games. Like Phillips before him, Riley made a living out of making something out of nothing in small spaces near the line of scrimmage, while also using his speed to make things happen over the top. You’ll see more of the same this year, and he could even be more of a safety valve for DeVito in the season’s early weeks.

Taj Harris, Sophomore

Harris was a surprising force as a freshman, catching 40 passes for 565 yards and three scores — with nearly all of those numbers coming in the final 10 games as Harris supplanted Devin Butler in the starting lineup and continued to show himself a capable middle of the field pass-catcher. If anyone’s going to put up some record-setting numbers this season, it could be Harris, who has excellent hands and route-running skills already, and the physicality to fight off defenders in league play.

Trishton Jackson, (Redshirt) Junior

We saw a little bit of what Trishton could do in last year’s bowl game, when he caught three passes for 27 yards and a touchdown, and looked every bit the former four-star he was when he first arrived at Michigan State. At 6-foot-1, he’ll get some deep routes drawn up for him, but there’s a ample opportunity to see Trishton targeted as a mismatch against linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage, too.

Nykeim Johnson, Junior

Nykeim plays with the sort of speed and slot receiver capabilities Riley does, and has been plugged into some trick plays and reverses in recent seasons too. You’ll see him operate downfield a little more, though, but he doesn’t have the size to battle deep as Custis did. More likely, he’s plugged in to take advantage of speed mismatches, creating some havoc in the process.

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Sharod Johnson, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Like many of these players, Sharod Johnson is a receiver who can play a little bit in the slot, but also do some work five to 10 yards downfield near the sideline. Though he only caught seven passes last year, those went for a moderately impressive 97 yards, and he’ll likely be a larger part of the passing game this year.

Courtney Jackson, Freshman

Jackson’s an impressive athlete, playing both on both offense and defense in football, while also playing basketball. That sort of experience will be put to the test soon on the field, as he seems an heir apparent to the slot receiver position. The fact that he’s already getting an “OR” with Nykeim Johnson means he’s definitely going to see the field a bit this year.

Cameron Jordan, (Redshirt) Sophomore

We’ve yet to see Jordan show up on offense — he was a special-teamer last year — but he certainly has the size to make a bigger impact at 6-foot-3 and 214 pounds. Jordan was actually listed with an “OR” as a starting wideout when spring ball began, so that’s indicative of him getting a lot more involved (likely on longer throws).

Anthony Queeley, (Redshirt) Freshman

Queeley only participated in one game last year, but at 6-foot-2 and nearly 200 pounds, that seems poised to change. The big target was listed as a reserve on the spring two-deep, though he’s not there now, which may make opportunities limited. Still, with Syracuse looking for a reliable downfield option, there’s an opening for him to have a bigger impact.

Cooper Lutz, (Redshirt) Freshman

Though Lutz didn’t get any work last year, he looked good during the spring game, catching three passes for 37 yards. The spring depth chart had him backing up Nykeim Johnson, but he’s not now, so it won’t create a ton of chances for him to jump in. But if Syracuse establishes big leads like they did last year, he’ll get more (and valuable) snaps.

Russell Thompson-Bishop, (Redshirt) Sophomore

One of the big storylines for RTB when he arrived at Syracuse was how close he was with DeVito, and the rapport they’d already developed by the time freshman year started. A few seasons later, let’s see if that gets put to work. He has similar size to Jordan, so it would be ideal to use him as a deep ball option as well.

Ed Hendrix, (Redshirt) Freshman

After Hendrix missed the 2018 season with an injury, expectations were high that the former four-star receiver would be in the mix for 2019 — and then another injury occurred in spring. We’ll see if Hendrix works his way back to health by the fall, or if he’s spending another season waiting. Even with the glut of pass-catchers on the roster right now, SU could find a place for his combination of size and speed.

Kevin Johnson Jr., (Redshirt) Freshman

Johnson remains a walk-on, so TBD if he actually gets involved on offense this year (and if he does, expect a scholarship to come with that). Still, at over 200 pounds, he has the sort of size to make a big impact on special teams this season.

Ethan Fischler, (Redshirt) Freshman

If Fischler gets involved this year, it’ll likely be on special teams. He could certainly be a part of the hands team, as he also was guard while playing basketball in high school.

James Cherry, (Redshirt) Freshman

Cherry didn’t see the field last year, but looked decent in spring ball. That doesn’t mean he’s breaking into the receiver rotation just yet. Special teams is a great start, however.

Nate Wellington, Freshman

Among the newer additions to the Syracuse roster, Wellington is a walk-on from Skaneateles who will almost certainly redshirt his first season on campus.

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Tight Ends

Aaron Hackett, Junior

Hackett’s a big target at 6-foot-3 and 234 pounds. And while he’s likely to be used primarily in a blocking role, it seems pretty likely he’ll get passes thrown his way just the same. Last year, he caught four balls for 43 yards and a TD — with 42 of those yards coming in the bowl game vs. West Virginia. Dino doesn’t typically use tight ends as passing options, but we’ve seen him adapt that in the past (see: Ravian Pierce in 2017).

Luke Benson, Freshman

Like Hackett, Benson slots in with a big frame — 6-foot-3 and 210 — which is going to come in handy for pass-blocking and some potential passes thrown his way, too. Depending on how healthy Chris Elmore is, we could be seeing a bunch of Benson out there this year as a backup to Hackett.

Jesse Conners, (Redshirt) Junior

Conners was injured last year, so any potential special teams impact was taken off the table. He’ll hopefully see the field for the first time with Syracuse this year, though, playing some special teams and maybe jumping in at tight end in garbage time (or if there are injuries elsewhere).

***

For all of the good-to-great receivers that have suited up for Syracuse in the last decade, this is potentially the best the Orange have been across the top of the depth chart, with at least four standouts in Riley, Harris, Nykeim Johnson and Trishton Jackson. Better still, this group remains pretty young, which means we’re still likely to see some improvement from many of the contributors.

Where questions potentially come up is if Syracuse starts suffering any major injuries. There’s promise and potential there, but no real proven commodities beyond the top four (and even then, we don’t have a guarantee on Jackson just yet). That doesn’t mean this group fails with inexperienced players getting tossed in. It’s just a bigger risk to lean on downfield passing with lesser route-runners, etc. But hopefully it doesn’t come to that. These receivers should be a lot of fun to watch this fall.