As we countdown to kickoff in August, we’re going to be doing a unit-by-unit preview each week over the summer. This week, we’re taking a look at the receivers, one of the deepest and most talented groups on Syracuse.
Syracuse loses its top receiver from 2018, Jamal Custis. He led the Orange with 906 yards and six touchdowns last season from the outside receiver position, landing Second-Team All-ACC honors.
Though Custis wasn’t selected in the 2019 NFL draft, he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs for a guaranteed $100,000, the biggest payday for an undrafted WR in the last two years, which is a good sign that he’ll make the 53-man roster.
The Orange also lose Devin C. Butler, who fell out of favor after a Week 6 suspension against Pitt for a violation of team rules. Freshman Taj Harris started in his place and Butler never found his way back into the starting lineup, finishing with just 126 yards on 14 receptions on the year, roughly half of his sophomore year production.
Butler put his name into the transfer portal in early January.
Finally, SU’s top tight end, Ravian Pierce, exhausted his eligibility after a season where he caught 16 passes for 105 yards and three touchdowns.
During the spring game, Syracuse listed Sean Riley, Nykeim Johnson, Harris, Cameron Jordan as its starting receivers in four receiver sets. Riley, Johnson and Harris were all starters by the end of last year.
Riley emerged as an All-ACC caliber slot receiver last season, leading the team with 64 receptions and finishing second on the team with 756 yards to go with three touchdowns.
In the spring game, he tallied three catches for 63 yards, including a 53-yard touchdown.
Johnson, who also lined up on the inside was tied for third on the team with 565 yards on 41 receptions and was second on the team with four receiving touchdowns.
He hooked up with Clayton Welch for the longest play of the spring game, a 71-yard strike for the game’s first offensive touchdown.
Though Harris was quiet during the spring game, having only one reception for 21 yards, he has the potential to be a breakout star this year. Harris broke Shelby Hill’s record for receptions by a true freshman (33 in 1990), setting Syracuse freshman records for both catches (40) and receiving yards (565).
Harris started seven games last year and figures to be Syracuse’s primary outside target with the departure of Custis.
Jordan, a redshirt sophomore, appeared in 12 games last season, primarily on special teams. While he’s certainly in the mix to start, he will be competing with a host of talented receivers.
At tight end, Chris Elmore was at the top of the depth chart. Elmore was used more as a fullback last season as the Orange benefited from his 299-pound frame, though he did start at tight end during Syracuse’s win in the World Camping Bowl.
WHO’S BACKING THEM UP
The most intriguing prospect out of the remaining wide receivers is Michigan State transfer Trishton Jackson.
We got to see Jackson, a former four-star recruit, in the World Camping Bowl, where he caught three passes for 27 yards and a touchdown. Jackson has the size and agility to play slot or on the outside, and summer camp will likely determine where he will primarily line up.
Jackson also added a ridiculous one-handed catch during the spring game, leading Syracuse head coach Dino Babers to say: “My God.”
“He needs to be challenged,” Babers said. “He wants to be good. You have to challenge him to be the best he can be.”
Sophomore Anthony Queeley also figures to push for some time in his sophomore season.
Aside from Jackson’s catch, Queeley also drew oohs and ahhs from the Carrier Dome crowd during the spring showcase, skying for a sweet touchdown snag over walk-on DB John Sweetwood on a 16-yard pass from Rex Culpepper.
Other receivers that may push for time include, Sharod Johnson, Cooper Lutz and true freshman Courtney Jackson.
“We’ve had other wide receivers who are in the program, the first three, four, five weeks, they’re going to be a standout guy,” Babers said about Jackson. “As the playbook gets bigger, they slow down. It’s interesting to see where he’s at. He’s done some really cool things. Let’s see what happens with the rest of his learning during the summer.”
Backing up Elmore at tight end will be Aaron Hackett, who is a reliable pass catcher that’s also athletic enough to block the edge.
For the fourth straight season, Babers will have different top wide receiver.
In his first year, it was Maryland transfer Amba Etta-Tawo who led the Orange and jumped to the top of the nation’s leaderboards with a 94-1,482-14 season, leading to First-Team All-ACC honors. The following season, Steve Ishmael was First-Team All-ACC as well, going for 105-1,377-7.
Babers’ up-tempo style of play will always produce wide receivers with gaudy numbers, and now that he has his fingerprints firmly on SU’s recruiting foundation, there’s no reason to not expect another All-ACC caliber wide receiver among this deep and talented group.
I expect a lot out of Harris, who as a true freshman notched seven games with 50+ yards receiving yard and nine with multiple receptions.