Rehashing a 2021 Syracuse Orange football season you’re probably trying to turn the page on and forget? Don’t threaten us with a good time. Between this week and next, we’re publishing position-by-position report cards looking at where Syracuse succeeded this year, and where they failed to.
Tuesday got started with evaluating quarterback play, and Wednesday took a closer look at Orange running backs (pretty much Sean Tucker). So Thursday is wide receivers and tight ends, which... what are those?! We’ll wrap up the offensive side of the ball this week, then move onto defense and special teams next. Prepare yourself for subjective grades galore, and perhaps you have some of your own to share as well.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
The one thing we thought we knew about Syracuse’s wide receivers heading into 2021 was that Taj Harris would be good. If nothing else, we had that and the rest would figure itself out no matter who was under center. Obviously, things changed quite a bit from that initial understanding. Despite being the Orange’s top wideout, Harris elected to transfer (he’d eventually wind up at Kentucky). He finished the season with 16 catches for 171 yards in three games.
SU’s passing attack mostly went downhill from there, really, even if not completely due to Harris’s departure (play-calling QB shortcomings certainly played roles as well).
While Courtney Jackson was the team’s leading receiver with 37 grabs for 389 yards and three scores, nearly 25% of those yards (and two of the three touchdowns) came in the final game against Pitt. Jackson was a favorite target of both Garrett Shrader and Tommy DeVito — his 48 targets led the team — but two-thirds of those were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Granted, he was effective in that range (27 receptions for 214 yards), but SU didn’t utilize him enough there to be a consistent weapon. He had two or fewer catches in six different games this year.
Devaughn Cooper was a surprise addition right before the season, and actually wound up being a significant contributor, even if (again) Syracuse didn’t really know how to utilize his skill set for extended periods. He was targeted 37 times (third-most on the team), and hauled in 21 passes, which was second. Cooper was a capable middle-of-the-field option too, with 81 yards after the catch on 14 grabs within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. And yet... had seven games with between zero and one catch, mostly due to a lack of throws his way.
Where things truly go off the rails, however, is with regard to the team’s outside receivers. Anthony Queeley seemed to emerge as a go-to option outside in 2020, yet had just 15 catches for 222 yards and two touchdowns this year. He was targeted 42 times, but had just four catches total over the final five games. Meanwhile, Damien Alford had 13 catches for 249 yards and two touchdowns, but was only targeted 31 times. Despite his late-game heroics to haul in the game-winning 45-yard TD versus Virginia Tech, he had just five catches for 56 yards the rest of the way.
Before anyone starts pinning the lack of catches vs. targets on the receivers, though, would note that Pro Football Focus stats pin just seven drops total on Jackson, Cooper, Alford and Queeley, and another five on Sharod Johnson to lead the team. So this was far less about receivers failing to haul in passes, and more on the inability to put the ball in a catchable spot.
Which, of course, brings us to the tight end position and Sterlin Gilbert’s inability to involve them in any real way. Part of that comes from the Chris Elmore injury that led to needing more pass-blocking, sure. But it’s not like the team was really using them in the passing game anyway prior to that, either.
On the year, Syracuse tight ends (including Elmore) were targeted just 13 times on the year, and caught just seven passes, and none of those misses were considered drops by PFF (though I feel like one of those Benson passes was — feel free to correct me). In any case, though, the Orange simply didn’t use tight ends in the passing game despite having some huge players at the position.
For reference: Maximilian Mang is 6-foot-7 and the tallest player on the team. Steven Mahar is 6-foot-5. Luke Benson (now transferring) is 6-foot-4, and has wide receiver speed and enough play-making experience previously — since he caught eight for 176 yard and three TDs in 2019 — that we know he can do it if called upon. Given the Orange’s issues with pressure AND long throws this year, using the tight ends and Sean Tucker more in the passing game could’ve paid dividends. The play-calling and decision-making just never bothered with it.
Admittedly, I’m torn about the grade here. On the one hand, the passing attack was unavailable for entire games at a time for Syracuse. And while that onus falls squarely on the departed Sterlin Gilbert and QB Garrett Shrader, you could argue that receivers also weren’t necessarily open all the time. Still, when teams are stacking eight in the box and you’re going three- and four-wide, there’s simply no way everyone’s blanketed either. Throw someone a ball they can catch.
Because they didn’t do a whole lot, though, the grade has to be lower. With more use next year, though (fingers crossed), there’s a major opportunity for improvement next fall. They just need to be put in position. And ideally, pick up a solid transfer since I’ll admit we still don’t really know a lot about this group’s talent level given how the last two years have gone.