We’re onto our third Syracuse Orange spring football position preview. If you missed the quarterbacks and running backs, you can go back before you read on for our preview of the wide receivers and tight ends.
Taj Harris didn’t even make it through the 2021 season after it was announced back in October that he had entered the transfer portal. He originally committed to the University of Kentucky in November, but decommitted and is now gearing up for a season with Rutgers.
Harris is in the top 10 for Syracuse’s career receptions and receiving yards charts and in normal years would have been the biggest WR loss going into the upcoming season but his early departure allowed Syracuse to learn to play without him.
Two other wide receivers entered the transfer portal as well. Russell Thompson Bishop played in a handful of games during his time at Syracuse, but had no impact whatsoever on the program. No word on where he’s going next or what his plans are, but his twitter bio says he still has two years of eligibility.
The final WR to enter the portal is Sharod Johnson who traveled back to his home state to play for Florida International. He ended the 2021 season at ‘Cuse with 14 receptions for 184 yards.
Syracuse also said good-bye to tight end Luke Benson who transferred to Georgia Tech after a season with only five receptions.
Who’s still here?
Don’t worry just yet, Syracuse still has a majority of their wide receivers on campus. Courtney Jackson is the top returning wideout as he’s coming off a season of 37 catches for 389 yards and 3 TD’s. He’s followed by DeVaughn Cooper (21/199/0), Anthony Queeley (15 catches, 222 yards, 2 TD’s) and Damien Alford (13/249/2),
The 7th-year Cooper emerged down the stretch with 10 of his receptions in the final three games. His work in the slot, along with Jackson’s, could see a big increase under the new offensive coaching staff. Queeley’s reception numbers dropped in 2021 but he’s got the size to help the offense move the chains through the air. Alford’s big-play ability resulted in one of the key highlights from last fall
FOR. THE. WIN.— Syracuse Football (@CuseFootball) October 23, 2021
Garrett Shrader to Damien Alford for the 45-yd score! pic.twitter.com/y7g1pbiTcT
Trebor Pena’s 2021 freshman season was cut short with an injury, but it looks like we’ll see him on the field again this year. Starting in the first eight games last season, he was ranked second nationally for combined kick return yardage (552). While he only had two receptions last year, Pena is a young receiver who has an extremely promising future at Syracuse.
The team has a number of young receivers who could push for playing time this season including Oronde Gadsden II, Umari Hatcher, Kendall Long, and Ja’Vontae Williams. Another WR returning is Isaiah Jones, who has been mostly used on special teams since arriving.
The Orange gained one wide receiver from the transfer portal: CJ Hayes is a 6’2” Kentucky native who previously played at Michigan State from 2017 to 2021. He comes to Syracuse with one remaining year of eligibility. Hayes also saw time at safety for the Spartans so we aren’t expecting him to replicate the production Syracuse received from Trishton Jackson after his transfer from Michigan State.
Syracuse has a young group of WR’s overall, maybe with the right guidance we’ll see these players grow exponentially over the next few years. It’s a position battle to watch closely this Spring as a new offense provides an opportunity for players to emerge.
At the tight end position Syracuse will get a healthy Chris Elmore back in 2022. Rhino is most impactful as a blocker in the running game and if he can stay on the field next year he’ll see a lot of time clearing holes for Sean Tucker. Maximillian Mang saw a lot of action in Tucker’s absence in 2021 and served in a similar role as a lead-blocker. Steven Mahar hasn’t seen a lot of action and with two blockers ahead of him we’ll see if OC Robert Anae moves him back outside to a WR role or adds more traditional pass catching roles for the position.
Who’s arriving this summer?
There’s only one wide receiver coming to Syracuse out of high school, and that’s three-star commit Donovan Brown. Brown comes from Maryland and committed back in July of 2021. His senior year he had 31 catches for 611 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Who can emerge as the Orange’s top target?
Despite the low statistical numbers from last season, there are some receivers who could certainly step up this year to try and emerge as a true #1 target.
Courtney Jackson (37 catches, 389 yards, 3 TD’s) had an impressive season in 2021 with appearances in 12 games, 8 of them in the starting lineup. He has a number of honors including being named to Pro Football Focus’ All ACC Team for his punt return work. He’ll be looking to build upon his success this Fall as the starting slot receiver.
Anthony Queeley (15 catches, 222 yards, 2 TD’s) also appeared in all 12 games last season. In the 2020 season Queeley was the second most-frequently targeted wide receiver and had 37 catches for 378 yards and 2 TD’s. Queeley’s size on the outside could allow him to be the player that Syracuse looks to in crucial situation.
Alford, Hatcher, Long, and Gadsen II offer Syracuse the possibility that they will elevate their game and seize an opportunity to see increased targets. Can some of the second-year players emerge as the type of consistent blockers that the offense needs their receivers to be which will give them chances to see more passes thrown to them?
Who is Michael Johnson Sr.?
The Orange haven’t had a wide receivers coach since the end of the 2020 season, and it’s about time they had one again. Michael Johnson Sr. is officially the man filling this role on the coaching staff.
Johnson served as the wide receivers coach for the Baltimore Ravens from 2006-2007 and had other NFL experience with wide receivers when he led the unit in 2002. His collegiate coaching experience spans from Mississippi State to Oregon, FAU, and more.
Looking at his resume you’ll see a lot of experience with both quarterbacks and wide receivers, but the Orange are looking for his help specifically with the young group of WR’s this team has.
Johnson also has some experience as an offensive coordinator and shows extensive promise in bringing the team to a higher performance level. He may just be the difference that brings these guys to a bowl game this year (sorry if you’re still heartbroken about last year, look to the future).
What’s this season going to look like for wide receivers and tight ends? What can they do to make this year different?
The coaching staff are really going to make an impact on how this season goes. The Orange can’t have another season where they start losing players to the transfer portal before the season ends.
Three new offensive coaches can allow for some fresh ideas and a new start for a group that hasn’t benefited from a lot of passes being thrown their way the last two seasons. Will the Orange quarterbacks find the consistency needed to make Syracuse a threat in the passing game and get the ball to this group?
Will we see the tight ends receive a few more targets this Fall? How much does having Elmore back help the Orange rushing attack?
2022 will probably be a question of who is going to step up and become Syracuse’s go-to receiver? Will it be Jackson or Queeley? Or will a younger player emerge under the guidance of the new staff?
The answer is we just have to wait until we’re back in the Dome for yet another football season with the Orange.