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Syracuse 2021 spring football preview: Wide receivers & tight ends

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Well, we know Taj Harris is gong to be fine. What about everyone else?

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Still no word on when Syracuse Orange spring football practices will start, and it may be a while yet before we know. That’s fine, though, since this machine will continue to trudge along previewing the weirdest edition of Syracuse spring ball in some time.

In previous editions, we ran through the quarterback position and Orange running backs. This week, we’re moving on to wide receivers and tight ends, who had a rough go of it in 2020.

How Syracuse’s receivers help ignite what’s hopefully a revitalized passing game

Who’s gone?

Two significant figures in terms of the Orange’s recent receiving production. Nykeim Johnson will play his super-senior season at Kent State to reunite with Sean Lewis after catching 20 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns last year. Tight end Aaron Hackett will spend his own super-senior campaign at TCU. Though Hackett only caught 10 passes for 63 yards and two scores last year, at least part of that’s a product of injury, scheme issues and offensive struggles.

Also, Cameron Jordan’s officially entered the transfer portal this offseason, but we knew he’s left the program last fall.

Who’s on campus?

The good news is that everyone else is back. Syracuse returns top pass-catcher Taj Harris (58 catches, 733 yards, 5 TDs) returns following an all-conference performance last fall — quite the achievement given the quarterback issues that plagued the passing game. Second-leading receiver Anthony Queeley is back as well after he emerged a bit with 37 receptions for 378 yards and two scores. Other experienced receivers coming back include: Courtney Jackson (10 rec./69 yards/0 TD), Luke Benson (6/63/2), Sharod Johnson (4/41/0), Ed Hendrix (3/24/0), Damien Alford (1/3/0) and Trebor Pena (1/-1/0). SU’s running backs caught passes last year, but don’t count for what we’re previewing here, obviously.

That list just scratches the surface, however, for who could see targets in the passing game. We’ve still yet to see what Russell Thomson-Bishop can do on offense, really. And there are numerous young players who’ve had little opportunity yet to showcase themselves, including Justin Barron, Isaiah Jones and Ja’Vontae Williams at receiver, plus Maximillian Mang and Steven Mahar at tight end. SU has a handful of walk-on receiveers available, too — like Ethan Fischler, Sam Warren and Nate Wellington. Also, 2021 tight end commit Landon Morris (6-foot-5, 210 pounds) has already enrolled.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Another three wide receivers will join the program as the Orange attempt to find the next breakout player there. Umari Hatcher, Oronde Gadsden II and Kendall Long all bring some good size, which could be helpful on the outside. But since we don’t know what this offseason will look like, tough to gauge how quickly they’ll be able to learn the playbook and contribute.

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Taj Harris would be better off in the slot, right?

Using the eye test, it certainly seemed that way last year. While Harris is a taller wideout, he shed a few pounds last offseason and was playing at under 170 pounds. He was fast, but also unable to really out-muscle anyone for the ball downfield (SU completed just five passes of 20 or more yards to Harris, on 27 targets — per PFF). When in the slot, his speed and good hands made him a more effective weapon, and having an outside target to take up more attention could free him up to be a bigger playmaker overall.

In 2020, he caught 51 of 60 targets within 10 yards of the line, for over 400 yards including plenty after the catch as well. He can still be a No. 1 receiver in the slot, and Syracuse would benefit from game-planning around just that for Harris going forward to get the most out of both him and the play-calling (which corrected itself regarding Harris in bits and pieces toward the end of last year).

On that note, do we have an outside receiver (or two) to take his place?

A proven one? No, not really. Anthony Queeley put in promising work last year, he’s not your BIG home run option that really makes this offensive scheme deadly. For the last three years, former four-star recruit Hendrix has been thought to be that guy at 6-foot-3 and over 200 pounds. Yet, injuries have hampered him repeatedly and his first on-field action last year didn’t result in much (save for an Andre Cisco injury in warm-ups... sorry).

Alford, Barron, Jones and Ja’Vontae Williams all have the size for it, even if not the experience. As mentioned, there’s potential too with the newcomers, with Long and Gadsden being likely outside receivers down the road.

In an ideal world, Syracuse has added a transfer receiver this offseason in a similar mold to Amba Etta-Tawo or Trishton Jackson, to help take the stress off the young guys coming along. We’ve seen breakout seasons from inexperienced players before, so mostly have to hope for that. Beyond Queeley and Harris, there are fewer than 10 career receptions among the other outside receiver options.

How can Syracuse put tight ends to better use in the passing game?

Better question might be “how can’t they?” Last year’s tight end usage was abysmal, as Hackett and Benson were targeted a combined 26 times and found themselves pulled into blocking assignments so often that they were rarely sent out wide at all. Between offensive line improvements this offseason and Chris Elmore moving back to fullback, that should mean the tight ends are used a lot more as pass-catchers right off the bat.

Of course, that also assumes Sterlin Gilbert calls plays for them. It hasn’t been a hallmark of his or most of Dino Babers’s teams dating back to Eastern Illinois. But given the very large, athletic humans Syracuse has at the position right now, it would be a major waste not to use them to create various mismatches. We’ve already seen some of what Benson can do there, and with luck, he helps take some stress off of both the Orange quarterbacks and inexperienced receivers that will inevitably be put to use on the depth chart.

Even with improved offensive line play (more on that below), tight end usage and short passes (again, see below) would make for a far more effective passing attack no matter who’s under center.

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How can this team design the passing attack to better combat pressure?

We started getting into a little bit of this above. The offensive line should take steps forward this year between a new position coach, new starting guard (Chris Bleich) and not dealing with the injuries we had in 2020. But there’s still going to be pressure, and Syracuse can design an offense around counteracting that more.

One of those options is screen passes, and the Orange likely have the bodies to make that happen between the tight ends, sure-handed running backs and shiftier receivers like Harris, Jackson and Pena. We saw how Harris was utilized in spurts last year to catch the ball in a small amount of space and let him create after the catch from there. Being quicker on that delivery should mean more room to run.

Obviously tight end usage — abysmal last year — should come back into play as both a safety valve and chunk yardage option, especially for Benson’s unique combination of size and speed. Syracuse has been adding some huge bodies at tight end of late, but they’ve been relegated to blocking roles. Being able to get relatively fast, big players into short and quick passing routes could mean a lot more completions. Those by themselves don’t make this offense run, but a collection of effective short-yardage plays that pull defenses in will open up options over the top and also help punish blitzes.