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ACC football 2019 position preview: Wide receivers and tight ends

How does Syracuse compare to the rest of the conference?

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

As you’ve noticed by now, the Syracuse Orange have become extremely adept at getting quality production out of its wide receivers. While previous groups had veterans littering the depth chart, last year’s didn’t — and yet, an uptick in efficiency and some new names emerging as key targets in the passing game. Though they do lose Jamal Custis, that group returns everyone otherwise, and brings in Michigan State transfer Trishton Jackson as well. With Tommy DeVito a better deep-ball threat at QB, we could wind up seeing record-setting numbers again, following a one-season hiatus for Orange wideouts.

Along with our Syracuse position group previews each week, we’ll also take a look at the rest of the ACC’s respective situations. Which teams are in the best shape? And the worst? And how does Syracuse stack up comparatively? Last time, we looked at running backs. This go-around:

ACC Football 2019 Wide Receivers/Tight Ends Preview

Last year’s top performers

Just four ACC wideouts hit the 1,000-yard mark last year — a group led by NC State’s Kelvin Harmon (1,186) as the only 1,100-yard receiver. He was followed by Greg Dortch (Wake Forest), Jakobi Meyers (NC State) and Justyn Ross (Clemson), plus there was a fifth 1,000-yard receiver in Virginia’s Olamide Zaccheaus, though he was technically more of a running back. None of those players led the league in receiving touchdowns, however. That distinction belonged to Clemson’s Tee Higgins, with 12 (to go with 936 yards).

After Higgins, Zaccheaus and Ross each had nine receiving scores, then Dorth had eight, as did Duke’s TJ Rahming, Florida State’s Tamorrion Terry and Virginia Tech’s Damon Hazelton. Despite nabbing a nice free agent contract with the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason, Syracuse’s Custis didn’t top any lists, though had a highly productive 51 catches for 906 yards and six scores, finishing in the top five in yards-per-catch (with more receptions than the four players in front of him).

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Who will excel in 2019?

Clemson’s Ross and Higgins are clearly in for big seasons as Trevor Lawrence’s top targets for the Tigers. While numbers weren’t eye-popping last year, both should improve even more with another year of experience under their belts. Ross’s performance in Clemson’s two College Football Playoff games (combined 12 catches for 301 yards) certainly seem to tease a big year coming.

A lot of the conference’s top wideouts from last year have departed, so there will definitely be some new names at the top of the list. Terry returns for FSU and Hazelton comes back for Virginia Tech, plus Syracuse returns an entire fleet of top receivers — most notably Taj Harris and last year’s receptions leader Sean Riley. Depending on what the offense looks like, Louisville’s Dez Fitzpatrick could put up some solid numbers, as could Miami’s Jeff Thomas. Brevin Jordan’s probably the top tight end after a strong freshman campaign for the ‘Canes last year, though those figures are unlikely to challenge the receivers even with some major improvements.

Top three units: 1. Clemson, 2. Syracuse, 3. Virginia Tech

We’ve covered most of the notable names, but these three appear most poised to put up impressive stats as a group. Ross and Higgins are arguably the best 1-2 receiver tandem in the country, and are joined by numerous blue-chippers right behind them. As mentioned, the Orange have a strong group atop the depth chart (Riley, Harris, Jackson, Nykeim Johnson), along with plenty more promising wideouts behind them, too.

Three of the top four receivers come back for the Hokies, which should make for an impressive season when paired with veteran passer Ryan Willis. Hazelton leads the way there and will push for 1,000 yards. Keene and Hezekiah Grimsley will pick up a lot of catches behind him, even if neither catches more than 50 balls.

Bottom three units: 12. Boston College, 13. Duke, 14. Georgia Tech

It’s hard to really gauge what the Georgia Tech passing game will look like this year, with questions around the quarterback position and a ton of inexperience at receiver. The top returning receiver (Jalen Camp) caught just 11 passes last year. And while that will certainly improve this season, it’s likely going to be a rough go as they transition out of the option system.

For Duke, no returning receiver caught more than 26 passes last year and the run game is likely to drive the offense. Boston College’s passing game looked better last year, but still lacks any real firepower. Kobay White led the team with 33 receptions last year, and will be BC’s top target once again. Everything else is questionable, however.

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Top five wide receivers in ACC:

  1. Justyn Ross, Clemson
  2. Tee Higgins, Clemson
  3. Tamorrion Terry, Florida State
  4. Damon Hazelton, Virginia Tech
  5. Taj Harris, Syracuse

Top three tight ends in ACC:

  1. Brevin Jordan, Miami
  2. Dalton Keene, Virginia Tech
  3. Carl Tucker, North Carolina

Where does Syracuse rank?

You’ll see above that Syracuse is second in the league, and there’s probably a decent gap between the Orange and Virginia Tech in third. SU’s experienced depth is its major advantage here, and realistically, we’re also grading with some upside included since DeVito is poised to be a bigger downfield passing threat — which should increase the counting stats that dipped last year. It might also make the team a lot more explosive (something that lacked consistency in 2018).