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ACC football 2021 position preview: Wide receivers & tight ends

There’s a lot of opportunity for ACC wideouts to make a name for themselves this year without a clear top guy.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 22 Birmingham Bowl - Memphis v Wake Forest Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For months now, we’ve been previewing the upcoming Syracuse Orange football season extensively. And while it’s very useful to know about Syracuse, it’s also valuable to know how the Orange stack up against ACC foes for 2021.

Last week, we previewed running backs, and how the position was a potential bright spot for the Orange. This time around, we shift focus to the conference’s various receiver corps.

ACC Football 2021 Wide Receivers & Tight Ends Preview

Last year’s top performers

Admittedly, the ACC didn’t really have a “breakout” receiver last year — just a large collection of guys who put in pretty good performances. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t playmakers out wide either. Clemson’s Amari Rodgers led the conference with 77 catches, along with 1,020 yards and seven touchdowns. He was second in yardage only to North Carolina’s Dyami Brown (1,099) and was tied for fourth in receiving TDs. Boston College’s Zay Flowers led the conference with nine of those, followed by Brown and Wake Forest’s Jaquarii Roberson with eight apiece.

Speaking of BC, tight end Hunter Long was one of the more prolific pass-catchers in the conference, with 57 grabs (tied for sixth in the ACC). Notre Dame’s Michael Meyer was the only other conference tight end to haul in more than 40 catches, and he had 42. Roberson was the only ACC player to average more than 100 receiving yards per game — though Brown was incredibly close as well, with 99.9 — but just five players topped 75 per game. Along with Roberson and Brown, Rodgers, Flowers and Louisville’s Dez Fitzpatrick also hit that mark on the season.

Duke’s Mayo Bowl - Wake Forest v Wisconsin Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Who will excel in 2021?

Roberson will be an essential piece of the puzzle for Wake’s offense this year, and should improve upon last year’s outputs, and Flowers should also prove vital for BC in year two of the new system with Phil Jurkovec under center. An important question lingers for Clemson as Justyn Ross’s status remains unknown. While the Tigers obviously have talent on the roster, Ross is an experienced and dynamic playmaker who has 102 catches, 1,865 yards and 17 touchdowns in two seasons. Any team — even Clemson — could use a guy like that in the passing game.

Beyond that, it could be a bit of a grab bag. Mike Harley (57 catches/799 yards/7 TDs) figures to be playing for possible draft stock at Miami, and same goes for Taj Harris. As we’ve talked about here, if Harris has the ability to move to the slot, that should open up his potential (and the Orange offense) quite a bit more. At Pitt, Jordan Addison caught 60 passes for 666 yards and four scores last year, and should improve with a better ground game on the field for the Panthers this time around.

Top three units: 1. Miami, 2. Clemson, 3. Wake Forest

For Miami, Harley’s option No. 1 and he’ll have help between Mark Pope, Jeremiah Payton, tight end Will Mallory and Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo (76 catches, over 1,100 yards, nine TDs in his career). Rambo is the sort of addition that doesn’t need to put up insane numbers to make an impact. Rather, it just makes for another target if teams hone in on Harley.

Perhaps Clemson’s ranking is largely contingent on the return of Ross. But there’s reason to believe in this group beyond him too, with tight end Braden Galloway plus experienced players like EJ Williams, Frank Ladson, Brannon Spector and Joseph Ngata. Wake’s also not just Roberson, as this was a pretty young group last year and the top contributors are all back.

Bottom three units: 12. Louisville, 13. Syracuse, 14. Georgia Tech

Louisville’s down both Fitzpatrick and Tutu Atwell, so they’ll turn to Braden Smith at wide receiver and Marshon Ford at tight end to steady a group in flux. Personally, I think Malik Cunningham’s abilities should help elevate this unit, but a lot also relies on whether the run game is capable. If not, things get one-dimensional pretty quickly despite Cunningham’s mobility.

Syracuse, as you know, has one known commodity in Harris, then a lot of question marks. Last year didn’t necessarily develop a ton of the depth this team has at receiver, so for now, it’s Harris, Anthony Queeley and whether or not the playbook decides to utilize the tight ends. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, continues to transition out of Paul Johnson’s system and still doesn’t have a ton going on at receiver and they lost top pass-catcher Jalen Camp. This year, they’re leaning on Malachi Carter and Northwestern transfer Kyric McGowan (34 catches for 366 yards last year).

College Football Playoff National Championship - Clemson v LSU Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Top five wide receivers in the ACC:

  1. Jaquarii Roberson, Wake Forest
  2. Justyn Ross, Clemson
  3. Zay Flowers, Boston College
  4. Mike Harley, Miami
  5. Jordan Addison, Pittsburgh

Top three tight ends in the ACC:

  1. James Mitchell, Virginia Tech
  2. Braden Galloway, Clemson
  3. Will Mallory, Miami

Where does Syracuse rank?

While we mention above that the Orange are among the bottom three units, there’s also a lot of room for improvement — and the pieces to make that happen. Still, there’s a lot of “what if” in there. IF another player (Damien Alford?) can emerge out wide, then Harris should be super effective in the slot. But that requires the line to be able to block and the play-calling to improve a bit, along with quicker QB decision-making. So it’s wait-and-see for now until we see something on the field.