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Syracuse football 2021 position preview: Wide receivers & tight ends

This group was top-heavy last year. What about this year?

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

In the middle of what’s been a Marvel-heavy week, we of course have plenty of Syracuse Orange football season content still to post as well. And with kickoff quickly approaching, we’re throwing as much at you as possible between now and the start of September.

Position-by-position roster breakdowns are already in full swing, after we covered quarterbacks to start, and running backs last week. Next up, we’re covering:

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

When Dino Babers first arrived, wide receivers were the highlight of a newly high-powered offensive system. Even when top-heavy (and those early teams were), Syracuse frequently had game-changing options out wide who could help push tempo and keep opposing defensive backs close to the line of scrimmage (which opened up options downfield). As you well know, that hasn’t been the case as much lately.

That’s no knock on the recent players, either. Trishton Jackson got himself an NFL contract a year after appearing all over the Orange record book on his own. And last year, despite an anemic offense and missing a game, Taj Harris still managed to put up one of the gaudier receiving stat lines in the ACC. Crucially for 2021, a couple more pass-catchers need to demand similar attention.

Wide Receivers

Taj Harris, Junior

When talking about this team’s receivers, you have to start with Harris. Since arriving in 2018, he’s caught 135 passes — already a top-10 total in school history — yet has also never really had THAT season the way others have in Babers’s system. Part of that could come from the offense coming undone. Other issues could stem from him being miscast on the outside, when he’s a more natural fit in the slot. Assuming he can operate inside this year (dependent on the other players listed here), it could really open up his game given his dangerous run-after-catch potential.

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

Anthony Queeley, (Redshirt) Sophomore

In his first real chance to play a major role, Queeley made the most of things in 2020 — catching 37 passes for 378 yards and two scores. With Harris hopefully headed to the slot, that will mean more downfield targets for Queeley if SU has the requisite protection. We saw glimmers of what he could do downfield last year, though he still only had 22 targets beyond 10 yards, per Pro Football Focus. This offense opens up a ton if he (or someone else) can become an over-the-top threat.

Damien Alford, Freshman

If it’s not Queeley emerging as the team’s top pass-catcher on the outside, it could wind up being Alford. The Quebec native only had one reception last year, but is 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, so would figure to be able to go up and get a few balls. Obviously he’s inexperienced so far at the college level. But he played in Florida as a senior in high school and at least has a year on campus under his belt. His emergence could be an enormous boon for this passing game.

Courtney Jackson, (Redshirt) Freshman

If we’re assuming the players above are your wideouts in a three-receiver set, then that probably means a little less run for Jackson, who hauled in 10 passes last season. When Jackson is playing, he’ll most certainly be in the slot and expect to see a lot of him in short yardage over the middle. According to PFF, 10 of his 16 targets (and eight of his 10 catches) were between the hashes and within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Trebor Pena, Freshman

We’ll discuss Pena’s impressive returning ability when we get to special teams. But as a receiver, his speed’s something Syracuse could utilize situationally to keep opponents off balance. Of course, that requires tempo — or at least quick decision-making to get the ball in his hands and just let him create a play.

Isaiah Jones, Sophomore

We focused on Alford as the most likely name to take the outside spot opposite Queeley, but Jones could be another contender. He’s 6-foot-4, and already has two years of college playing experience between his time at El Camino College and 2020’s special teams duty. That could give him a leg up in the quest for more snaps. SU should be getting as many of the team’s bigger targets out there as possible.

Ja’Vontae Williams, Freshman

Speaking of bigger targets, Williams is the other name that is likely to work his way into the mix. The Florida product is six feet tall, but also 200 pounds, so has the ability to be a physical target on the outside. We didn’t see a whole lot of him last year, since he recorded no stats over five games. But without many proven options out wide, he’ll be in the mix this time around.

Oronde Gadsden, Freshman

Another addition from Florida is Gadsden, a true frosh added this past winter who has an NFL pedigree. Several of the entries above mention that Syracuse is in search of size, and his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame would certainly qualify. As is the case for many incoming freshman, it’s tough to learn the system away from campus. But Gadsden could stand a better chance to pull it off and jump in right away than most.

Kendall Long, Freshman

At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Long is another name who could get a shot outside if the depth chart just doesn’t shake out as planned — and/or he’s able to put together an incredibly impressive camp. The former track star has leaping ability and also used to play basketball. All of these things could be precursors to a jump-ball approach we haven’t really seen since Jamal Custis graduated.

Umari Hatcher, Freshman

Things may appear a little backed up in the slot right now, but with Harris a likely option to go pro after this season (evaluation provided, of course), there are immediate chances to move up in the pecking order. Hatfcher’s tall (6-foot-3), but fleet-footed and has plenty of big-play ability (he had 56 catches for 1,400 yards and 17 scores back in 2019). Even if we don’t see a ton of him this year, the future with him eventually plugged in is an exciting one.

Sharod Johnson, (Redshirt) Junior

Johnson’s typically seen the field in select circumstances or special teams duty, and only has 12 catches on his career. Yet, even if he’s not directly contributing, having a veteran with his experience could prove pretty valuable for a position group full of young guys. He could also wind up in the mix as a backup slot receiver once again.

Russell Thompson-Bishop, (Redshirt) Junior

RTB’s a massive target at 6-foot-1 and 247 pounds, and it’s always seemed like a missed opportunity that the connection never developed on the field between him and DeVito after what seemed like a strong start when they both got to campus. At worst, he’s a capable and experienced special-teamer. I’ll still hold out some hope he could make something happen in a limited receiver role, though.

Ethan Fischler, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Fischler’s seen limited action at SU, and that may be the case once again this fall for the walk-on. Given the long list of scholarship wideouts above, special teams could be his best route, though he’s yet to appear with that group as a member of the Orange.

Sam Warren, (Redshirt) Freshman

Warren has yet to see the field, though he played three different positions back in high school — quarterback, wide receiver and safety. That’s good to know just from the stance of plugging him in as needed. Though preferably, think we’d all rather see him as a capable special teams contributor than being needed for spot duty at any of those positions.

Nate Wellington, (Redshirt) Freshman

Same goes for the Skaneateles product, who stood out as a receiver back in high school. Warren’s yet to jump in on special teams for Syracuse. But perhaps this is the year he starts getting involved there.

Cam Rierden, Freshman

Preferred walk-on spots are limited this year since the roster’s already pretty large. But Rierden was added back in April and has the potential to join the receiver group or play safety. He’s a redshirt candidate in year one.

Tight Ends

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Western Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Elmore, Senior

Though Elmore’s position has officially been changed to fullback again, we’ll leave him here because recent history has told us that both he and the tight ends will be used to similar goals within this offense — especially if the offensive line falls apart again. Personally, just glad to see the Orange’s jack-of-all-trades return to where he’s most effective, as a lead blocker out of the backfield.

Luke Benson, Sophomore

After an impressive freshman season where Benson managed 176 yards and three TDs on just eight catches, expectations were very high for his sophomore campaign. O-line woes and Sterlin Gilbert’s scheme largely ignoring tight ends meant he only had six receptions for 63 yards and two scores. But hopefully Syracuse finds a way to get Benson’s impressive blend of size and speed back into the mix in 2021.

Steven Mahar Jr., Freshman

You’ll see a theme at the tight end position, where the Orange have brought in huge targets who can also serve as excellent blockers. Mahar’s 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, and a complete matchup nightmare if SU can find a way to just run the two-tight end set we’ve been dreaming of for the last few seasons. He’s a pass-catcher first and foremost, and Syracuse could use some of those. With luck, Mahar is part of the solution this fall.

Maximilian Mang, Freshman

Speaking of matchup nightmares, there’s a chance Mang is the secret weapon we’ve yet to spring on opponents. He’s a hulking 6-foot-7 and 264 pounds. And even if he’s “only” a blocker, that’s still a huge assist for a team that needs protection help. Would very much like to see what he can do as a passing target, however.

Landon Morris, Freshman

Unlike the new receivers, Morris is already on campus and appears to be yet another massive body that ‘Cuse can toss out there at the tight end spot. Perhaps this all seems overly optimistic given SU’s lack of tight end usage of late, but... having this many huge targets should theoretically fix short yardage and red zone woes after years of struggle.

Sam Weaver, Freshman

Weaver’s a walk-on, and you’d figure he redshirts this year given all of the names in front of him. But like the rest of Syracuse’s tight ends, he’s big, can block and at the very least, there are some opportunities to get him involved on special teams for the time being.

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

Syracuse admittedly lacks for a ton of experience at both the wide receiver and tight end positions, yet you can see there are more than enough names to choose from to rectify that early in the season. While the offensive line and quarterback positions take plenty of blame for recent SU struggles on this side of the ball, receivers also haven’t been at the top of their game either.

Last year, Orange receivers had 22 drops and PFF shows the best drop grades on the team come from either running backs or guys that transferred. Those sorts of issues perhaps should’ve been a sign that more of the team’s young wideouts were tossed in to get valuable snaps and take advantage of last year’s redshirt rules. But since that didn’t necessarily happen, the hope is that the fix has been implemented over the offseason — and it very well could’ve been by hiring Terrence Samuel as the new position coach. If not, though, then this becomes a pretty one-dimensional attack once again.