We already knew that the Syracuse Orange offense was going to look different in 2020.
Between Moe Neal’s departure, Sterlin Gilbert coming in as the team’s new OC and a lack of much returning experience at wide receiver, it pretty much had to. But then came Monday’s news that (one of spring’s starting wideouts) Cameron Jordan was no longer with the program either.
The result creates an interesting situation for SU. Dino has his least-experienced receivers corps. since arriving at Syracuse, with Taj Harris and Nykeim Johnson being the only returning wideouts who’ve seen significant playing time in recent years. While Harris has a ton of talent and a high ceiling as the Orange’s No. 1 target this season, Johnson appears to be less of a sure thing following 2019’s struggles (just 19 receptions for 99 yards).
Jordan wasn’t an incredibly experienced option at the outside receiver spot opposite Harris either, but he was still a long-tenured player with an understanding of the offense. Without him, one can assume we’re plugging in Ed Hendrix in his place. The former four-star prospect has yet to see the field for Syracuse after two years of injuries, but he’s the sort of taller target that this offense typically finds use for over the top of defenses.
Hendrix’s lack of experience right now won’t stop that from happening. However, recent trends for Babers’s squad may be hinting at a completely different shift.
After years of relegating tight ends to more of a blocking role (even dating back to his time at Eastern Illinois), recent additions at the position have been actual pass-catchers — and big targets, at that.
Aaron Hackett and Luke Benson (both 6-foot-3 and over 230 pounds) caught a combined 31 passes for 381 yards and nine touchdowns last year, showcasing some red zone prowess we’ll likely see utilized again. Back in 2018, tight ends (Hackett and Ravian Pierce) teamed up for 23 receptions and four scores, so the offense does seem to be at least looking toward tight ends more often.
SU also utilized some two-tight end sets here and there last year, and the current situation likely means even more of it. While Hackett and Benson both have impressive size, the latter also possesses some wide receiver-level speed. A two-tight end set with both players out there could create numerous mismatches, the likes of which Tommy DeVito should be able to exploit with better protection this fall.
With or without Gilbert coming aboard, the recruiting trends did seem to be headed this way, too. Along with Hackett and Benson, 2020 additions Maximilian Mang and Steven Mahar are each at least 6-foot-5, and Mang’s an impressive 6-foot-7. That makes for great blocking, sure. But as receivers, they’re very hard to both cover and take down.
Perhaps less related to the tight end spot, the lack of experienced outside receivers could also mean utilizing running backs in the passing game more. or specifically, utilizing the speedy Jawhar Jordan as more of an H-back type who can be utilized in a variety of ways. All offseason, I’ve been talking about how he has the potential to play in the slot. And while I do think that could still happen, an H-back type role could be the sort of wrinkle that keeps defenses off-balance and the standout redshirt freshman as involved as possible without it being predictable.
There’s a lot of uncertainty at the skill positions for Syracuse right now. However, it’s worth at least looking at how that can be spun up positively. Gilbert wasn’t brought in to simply try the same things as last year with different players, so expect at least a few new aspects added to this scheme in 2020. The suggestions above aren’t the only options there, either. Just the ones that seem most likely (to me) right now given personnel.