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Syracuse football 2020 season report card: Wide receivers & tight ends

What exactly happened here in 2020?

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

Of course you’re annoyed by the Syracuse Orange’s 2020 football season. But we can still learn some things from an injury-riddled 1-10 campaign. So as always, TNIAAM’s going to open up some wounds before they’ve even healed and make you relive what transpired.

You might have figured out by now that we’re providing position group recaps on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball (plus special teams), with grades included. This week, the focus is on the offense. We already covered quarterbacks and the running backs. Today, we move onto:

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

In some ways, this season was a predictable one for Syracuse’s wide receivers. With Taj Harris coming back as the most proven pass-catcher, there were more questions than answers from the rest of the group. Could Nykeim Johnson rebound from a down 2019? Which young players were going to step up? Who would emerge as a capable downfield option? And also: How would Sterlin Gilbert use the tight ends along with this group?

We’ll get to the tight ends, but for the wideouts, things were pretty rocky all year.

When he was locked-in, Harris was a conference standout and he did wind up finishing the season strong, posting 21 receptions, 215 yards and a touchdown over the final two weeks. Despite missing a game and catching just one pass vs. Louisville, he still had 58 grabs for 755 yards and five scores, turning in one of the better lines in the ACC.

Over the course of the last two years, it’s rarely seemed like Harris and Tommy DeVito were on the same page, but they did have moments in the early stages of this season. Once Rex Culpepper took over, Harris was usually his favorite target, and the junior receiver took advantage of that during some (though not all) games. The nagging concern really came from Harris’s size on the outside following offseason weight loss. When SU put him in the slot (which they did at various points late in the year), he was a much more effective option. Harris is also one of our better run-after-catch receivers in recent memory.

NCAA Football: Duke at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Culpepper’s other favorite target was Anthony Queeley, who hadn’t caught a pass coming into this season but managed to haul in 37 balls for 378 yards and two scores. He was frequently a target on short screens, but showed good hands and some speed at times. Queeley’s size (6-foot-2, 192 pounds) was a little better suited for lining up outside, but he still wasn’t the sort of mismatch that gives defenses fits. Just becoming a better pass-catcher over time mitigates the need for that, however, especially if there are weapons that fill that need elsewhere on the depth chart.

Beyond those two, Nykeim Johnson did catch 20 passes (not bad) for 323 yards and four TDs, and actually became the team’s top big-play option. Only two other players caught 10 passes or more (and both had 10 exactly): Courtney Jackson, who was largely targeted late and/or in garbage time. And Aaron Hackett, who was lightly used in the passing game along with the rest of the tight ends but did have two touchdowns. Along with an injury that was revealed after the season, Hackett was also frequently plugged into pass-blocking due to the offensive line’s struggles.

Other receivers included Luke Benson (six receptions, 63 yards, 2 TDs), Sharod Johnson (4/41/0), Ed Hendrix (3/24/0), Damien Alford (1/3/0) and Trebor Pena (1/-1/0). Benson obviously falls victim to the lack of tight end usage within this offense, but also had several drops. If Syracuse is going to continue with Gilbert’s scheme, they’re going to have to adjust how they recruit tight ends, since most additions lately have been better receiving options than blockers.

As for the rest, you can’t really blame them for being minimally involved given the play-calling and quarterback issues. We discussed during the running backs article as well, but quick screens were opportunities to combat the constant pressure Orange QBs faced. We saw those sorts of passes during early drives when plays were scripted. However, it did seem like those calls diminished over the course of games — a bummer, since they would’ve most helped Culpepper, who lacked a ton of downfield accuracy.

For comparison, Culpepper completed just 13 throws beyond 10 yards (on 54 tries), according to Pro Football Focus. JaCobian Morgan was 4-of-12 there. DeVito was just 5-of-27. Screens were basically the only option all year, regardless of who was under center.

Boston College v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

We talked about the concerns with outside receiving threats earlier, and even if Harris or Queeley isn’t exactly that, there should be players on this roster that do fill the role. Hendrix, finally on the field after two years of injuries, stands at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. Yet his most notable contribution this year was a freak collision with Andre Cisco. Justin Barron stands at 6-foot-4 and 208 pounds. Isaiah Jones is 6-foot-4 and 200. Damien Alford is 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds.

There were players on this team that could’ve potentially been plugged in on the outside but a shortened offseason left this team’s play-calling leaning on a handful of returning players instead of those newcomers. Any steps forward made by Gilbert or a potential replacement (should that occur) would need to get more receivers involved. The good thing is they probably don’t have to spend much time trying to acquire those players. They may very well already be on the roster and just need more time in the program and some coaching.

The fact that it never really clicked for most of these receivers this year, though, does cause at least a little concern. Part of it’s play-calling, yes. And part of it’s QB struggles. But we didn’t see most of these younger wideouts on the field all that much, and when they were, they weren’t targeted. So how valuable were those snaps? Next fall should tell us pretty quickly.

Grade: C-