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Syracuse football 2020 position preview: Wide receivers and tight ends

The Orange replace a major piece or two once more out wide, but that hasn’t been an intimidating task under Dino Babers

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not banking on college football occurring this fall, but since we’ve yet to hear otherwise, it’s worth trudging on with our 2020 Syracuse Orange preview materials this offseason.

Leading up to what’s currently still scheduled to be the season kickoff, we’re looking at different position group on Syracuse’s roster each week, along with every player that may (or may not) make an impact this fall. Last week, we looked at the running backs group and their potential for production behind a better line. This time around, it’s:

Wide receivers and tight ends

It’s become the norm under Dino Babers for a Syracuse receiver to have a single breakout season and then graduate. So Trishton Jackson’s decision to leave for the NFL with a year of eligibility left was a surprise in that regard. But in terms of him recording a strong campaign — 66 catches, 1,023 yards and 11 TDs — and then departing, it shouldn’t have been. The result means questions for Syracuse, though not unfamiliar ones. We’ve been here before, after all.

Following Amba Etta-Tawo’s record-breaking 2016 season, Steve Ishmael had his own in 2017. Jamal Custis’s 2018 wasn’t eye-popping (51 catches for 906 yards) yet was still strong, and that was followed by Jackson’s effort last year. The lesson here is that someone will always step up, and that’s why it’s easier to feel confident that at least ONE Orange wideout is going to impress this season.

Wide receivers

Taj Harris, Junior

Speaking of breakout candidates, look no further than Harris. His 77 catches for 1,124 yards and five scores through two seasons won’t floor you, but in some ways, he inhabits an Ishmael-type role. He’s a quality blocker, great route-runner and has excellent hands. Yet he’s adept at the mid-range routes that simply couldn’t develop last year. As the No. 1 receiver in 2020, expect him to be a lot more involved in different parts of the field, which should mean a big statistical bump for this team’s most proven offensive playmaker right now.

Nykeim Johnson, Senior

Nykeim dealt with some injuries at the start of last year, and I’m not sure they ever really went away. Because having a slot receiver to help bail out Tommy DeVito under pressure would’ve certainly helped in 2019. Assuming he’s back to full health in 2020, we could see a return to the speedy receiver who caught 41 passes for 565 yards a couple years ago.

Cameron Jordan, (Redshirt) Junior

Jordan finally saw the field last year, and wound up with three receptions for 20 yards. Whether he can translate that into more could wind up being critical to this passing attack’s potential should he hold onto the starting role the spring depth chart gave him. At 6-foot-3 and 214 pounds, he’s one of the bigger pass-catchers on the roster and would seem to fit the bill on the outside opposite Harris.

Ed Hendrix, (Redshirt) Sophomore

... But if he doesn’t, Hendrix (6-foot-3, 217 pounds) could also be a fit. The former four-star receiver has been injured for the past two years, though with luck, he’ll finally see the field this fall (again, humor me that we’re playing games for now). Assuming he’s finally healthy, it’ll be interesting to watch him finally get to work within this offense.

Anthony Queeley, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Queeley is an inexperienced option on offense, though he’s spent plenty of time on the field as part of Syracuse’s special teams unit. And that alone could make a big difference as he’ll be on the short list of second-teamers to see the field, and already knows what to expect. His size and speed could put him in the slot or on the outside depending on the situation, making him a uniquely versatile option.

Courtney Jackson, (Redshirt) Freshman

Whether or not we see running back Jawhar Jordan in the slot a bunch this year could rely on how well Jackson fares there. He was listed with an “OR” as the second option inside behind Nykeim Johnson, but he’s a quick and compact receiver in s similar mold to Sean Riley. We haven’t seen much from him yet (one catch last year). That seems likely to change.

Sharod Johnson, (Redshirt) Junior

Obviously Sharod’s been around the program for a bit, yet we still don’t know what we have in him beyond some potential versatility. It appears he’s been shifted inside at this point, and that’s to his benefit given the question marks there. If he’s not an offensive factor, there are possibilities on special teams, perhaps.

Russell Thompson-Bishop, (Redshirt) Junior

When RTB arrived on campus, it was easy to get excited about his size (6-foot-1, 226 pounds) and his rapport with DeVito. We still haven’t seen him catch a pass, though, and he’s not factoring into the dept chart. There’s a chance he’s a late bloomer, but this offseason’s limitations won’t help him come along there. If he’s special teams-bound, there are still some valuable roles he can play there.

Damien Alford, Freshman

Alford was one of the top-rated players in the 2020 class for Syracuse, and at an impressive 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, he’s also one of the true freshman that seems most likely to see the field early. Ideally, the Quebec native (via Hollywood, Fla.) redshirts this season. But if he doesn’t, that means he’s probably coming along really well and competing for a starting role outside.

Ja’Vontae Williams, Freshman

SU fought off Miami, Oregon, Indiana and others to land Williams, a three-star player from Florida who seems like a future standout on the outside. Like Alford, you wouldn’t mind seeing a redshirt year. Though given the inexperience in front of both, they’ll get every opportunity to climb the depth chart. Williams was also on campus back in January, giving him an additional leg up.

Trebor Pena, Freshman

We’ve talked a lot about uncertainty in the slot, and there’s a chance Pena could wind up the solution there. Like the other options there, he’s shifty and can thrive in different roles. Pena played a lot of running back in high school, which also puts him into a conversation for an H-back type role if SU ever opts to return that position to the offense.

Justin Barron, Freshman

Leading up to the early signing period last year, Barron looked like he was coming in as a defensive end. Yet he has offensive experience and his Twitter feed now indicates he’s a receiver (we’ll see what the updated roster says in the coming weeks), so for now, we’re grouping him there. You’d like the 6-foot-4 player at either spot, really. He seems like a redshirt candidate as he learns the offense.

Ethan Fischler, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Ethan wasn’t with the team last year after redshirting in 2018. He’s back now, though, and the walk-on is going to have his work cut out for him to break into the rotation. Given this team’s ability to plug effective players in on special teams, though, that doesn’t mean a role is unavailable to him.

Sam Warren, (Redshirt) Freshman

Warren is a former quarterback and two-sport athlete, so while it may be hard for the walk-on to get a shot at receiver, he’s a valuable mind on the sidelines who can see the field differently than others in the position group. Like Fischler, special teams could also be an option for him this year.

Nate Wellington, (Redshirt) Freshman

The local receiver has yet to see the field, but could be involved on special teams this fall depending on how the rest of this group (and the secondary) shakes out, and which scholarship players are slotted in there.

Boston College v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Tight ends

Aaron Hackett, Senior

Babers continues to increase the role of tight ends in this offense, and Hackett has been crucial to that evolution. As a junior last year, he caught 23 passes for 205 yards and six touchdowns. He’s a huge target at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, and should be one of the conference’s most dangerous red zone pass-catchers this season. I think he’s a fringe All-ACC talent, depending on the numbers he’s able to put up.

Luke Benson, Sophomore

If SU winds up running any two-tight end sets, that’ll only be to their benefit as Benson more than proved himself last year as a frosh. He caught eight passes for 176 yards and three touchdowns, and seems to present the sort of mismatch at tight end that could give defenses fits. Expect to see a lot more of him in 2020.

Steven Mahar, Freshman

With two experienced tight ends in front of him, Mahar could redshirt this year, though you have to like the future possibilities for the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Rochester product. A year learning under Hackett and Benson before he gets more involved should be plenty valuable. And redshirt rules could still allow us some glimpses of what he can be down the road.

Maximilian Mang, Freshman

Speaking of size, Mang is 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, and could be a lethal blocker — while also being very tough to bring down as a receiver. The German is also a likely redshirt candidate, yet you can see where he may be a lethal red zone target later on.

Jesse Conners, (Redshirt) Senior

Conners, a walk-on, may finally be healthy here in his final season on campus. Unfortunately, the depth chart’s gotten a bit crowded in front of him, but you never know how special teams sorts itself out, or if the two freshman redshirt. He seemed to have a lot of promise in the one spring game we saw him in a couple years back. Hopefully he gets on the field a handful of times.

Zack Lesko, (Redshirt) Senior

Lesko’s zig-zagged from one side of the ball to the other while at SU and Chattanooga, but it seems he’s settled in at tight end by this point. Last year, his season was cut short by injury in September. Before that, he was seemingly starting to find a role on the kick return team. He may wind up there once again this year.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 10 Syracuse at NC State Photo by John McCreary/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Though there are similarities to previous Orange teams losing a standout receiver, this one doesn’t have the same returning talent once you get past the No. 1 target. Beyond Harris, eturning Syracuse pass-catchers had a combined 55 receptions in 2019. The only real caveat you could add there is that Nykeim Johnson’s done more throughout his three years on campus so far (total of 68 grabs for over 700 yards). Still, this is basically starting from scratch.

Where the receiving group benefits is the fact that these tight ends are experienced and capable of bailing this offense out in the redzone. Plus they have a veteran QB who learns from mistakes and can throw well downfield, AND the line should be improved AND the running game should hopefully be able to take a load off of the passing attack. None of that guarantees success, or even tells you which of these receivers step up past Harris. However, it at least tells me things aren’t as dire as they may appear on paper.