Offense — 2020 Syracuse Football preview

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Tommy DeVito looks to throw against North Carolina in the game's first overtime. Syracuse would win 40-37. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

QUARTERBACKS

Tommy DeVito returns to the starting role for the Orange after a solid redshirt sophomore campaign. DeVito appeared in every game for SU, starting 11 contests, and completed over 63 percent of his passes for 2,360 yards with a tidy 19:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

While his production shows areas to improve, such as in yards per attempt, DeVito closed the season with a streak of 170 passes without an interception, the third-longest active FBS streak and just 20 attempts shy of tying the school record held by R.J. Anderson. The question about that streak is if poor blocking made DeVito more aware of the necessity to throw the ball away instead of forcing dangerous passes.

Redshirt senior Rex Culpepper should be DeVito’s backup. Culpepper has attempted 76 passes in three seasons, connecting for a pair of touchdowns. Freshmen Dillon Markiewicz and JaCobian Morgan enter the program as recruits from Texas and Mississippi, respectively.

RUNNING BACKS

With Moe Neal having completed his eligibility last season, the Orange backfield looks for a new leading man and has a handful of candidates for the role. Abdul Adams, who was the primary backup last season, and Jarveon Howard, who has filled the short-yardage slot his two years on campus, were the leading contenders to take over. The duo combined for 673 yards and a half dozen scores last season, splitting their contributions almost exactly down the middle, but opted out for the 2020 season, leaving an even bigger hole at running back.

The player chosen to fill that hole at running back was definitely a surprise. Jawhar Jordan, a 5’9”, 172-pound redshirt freshman, who appeared in the maximum allowed four games last season and showed some tantalizing talent in that limited exposure, was named the starting running back for the opening game at North Carolina. Jordan had 15 rushing attempts in that cameo, but averaged seven yards a carry and exploded for an 81-yard reception against Louisville.

Markenzy Pierre, a redshirt junior, is now listed as the backup at running back. Pierre has played in 27 games, making his greatest impact on special teams in that time, as he has just 38 carries at SU. Listed at 5’11” and 216 pounds, Pierre likely owns the short-yardage and goal-line looks, but this may end up being a running back committee with Pierre getting some regular carries to limit hits to the smaller Jordan.

Redshirt sophomore Cooper Lutz and true freshman Sean Tucker are other running backs who may see time this season. Lutz is yet to take the field for the Orange.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Taj Harris returns for his junior season as the top pass catcher on the roster, but his two seasons had different impact levels despite similar production. Harris came on late to set records for Syracuse freshmen with 40 receptions for 565 yards in 2018, but fans who expected more from his sophomore campaign were disappointed in his 37 catches for 559 yards. He is expected to be the top threat in the passing game in 2020 at outside receiver.

With Trishton Jackson and Sean Riley moving on, leaving Harris is the only established pass-catching threat for SU, the door has been left open for senior slot receiver Nykeim Johnson to pick up some slack. Johnson has 68 career receptions, including 41 with four touchdowns as a sophomore, but needs to show consistency this season. With 35 games and 11 starts under his belt, Johnson is a key for the Orange attack.

Beyond those players is a series of question marks. Ed Hendrix and Anthony Queeley are redshirt sophomores who are being looked at as potential contributors on the outside. Hendrix (6’3”, 220 pounds) and Queeley (6’2”, 193) have the size to make plays on the perimeter. Queeley is listed as the starter for the opener in front of Hendrix, who has been on the shelf with injuries his two years on campus.

Courtney Jackson and Sharod Johnson will compete to complement Nykeim Johnson in the slot. A redshirt junior, Sharod Johnson caught seven passes in 2018. Jackson redshirted as a freshman last year, appearing against Holy Cross and catching one pass. Freshman Justin Barron is listed on the two-deep behind Harris.

TIGHT ENDS

Along with DeVito at quarterback, tight end is the most settled position on the offense. Senior Aaron Hackett has appeared in every game the last two seasons, notching eight starts along the way. Hackett caught 23 passes last season, including six touchdowns, and owns the best combination of receiving and blocking skills at the position.

Luke Benson showed surprising speed as a freshman, breaking free on one of his eight receptions for a 70-yard score against Holy Cross. That speed enabled Benson to be a big-play threat from the tight end spot, as his two other two receiving scores covered 22 and 29 yards. Benson could be a bit of a wild card to be deployed unusually due to his combination of size and speed.

» Related: 5 takeaways from Syracuse football’s latest depth chart

OFFENSIVE LINE

While there are four starting linemen returning this season, only three are available as the season gets underway. Redshirt senior Airon Servais is the unquestioned leader of the unit, having started all 37 games in his three seasons of play, swinging from left tackle to center last season due to a teammate’s injury, then back out to the edge when the lineup changed. He is expected to anchor the line and protect DeVito’s blind side.

Carlos Vettorello, a redshirt sophomore who started at three different spots last season, is penciled in at center, the spot where he played the final three games of the 2019 campaign. Vettorello opened the season at right tackle, then shifted to left tackle for eight games before moving inside.

Matthew Bergeron appeared in every game as a true freshman last season, including starting the last five contests. The first true freshman to start at tackle for SU since 2002, the Canadian import was named a freshman All-American by Pro Football Focus.

The guard spots are in flux entering the season, though. Redshirt junior Dakota Davis, the fourth returning starter, has played in two dozen games in two seasons, including starting every game last year at right guard. One of the biggest players on the roster, the 6’5”, 327-pound Davis compiled 50 knockdown blocks last season, second on the team. Davis was rehabbing an injury in the spring and is still unavailable as the season kicks off.

Chris Bleich, who transferred to SU from Florida after starting eight times for the Gators as a redshirt freshman, was a strong possibility at the other guard spot. Bleich, however, is still waiting for the NCAA to determine his eligibility this season or if he will have to sit out as a transfer.

As a result, both starting guards will be new to the lineup, or at least one of them will be new to the lineup at that spot. Chris Elmore, who has played fullback, H-back, tight end, defensive tackle, and on special teams during his three seasons, is penciled in at left guard. Elmore’s special teams experience for the Orange has included being on the line for punt and field goal units, but it remains to be seen how that will transfer to a more traditional lineman role.

Redshirt junior Darius Tisdale was listed as the starter at right guard in place of Dakota Davis during the spring and he remains there for the start of the season. Tisdale transferred to SU from Lackawanna Community College, where he played tackle, and spent time on special teams last season, as well as couple handfuls of snaps at guard.

Senior Patrick Davis was listed to start next to Servais at left guard in the spring practice depth chart and is now the reserve guard for either position. Davis has appeared in 24 games for the Orange, mostly on special teams.

Sophomore Mark Petry is listed as the swing tackle and freshman Josh Ilaoa is listed as the backup center. Petry is a native of Germany and junior college transfer while Ilaoa played tackle on both sides of the ball at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, NC.

RETURNING OFFENSIVE STARTERS (7): RT Matthew Bergeron, RG Dakota Davis, QB Tommy DeVito, TE Aaron Hackett, WR Taj Harris, LT Aaron Servais, C Carlos Vettorello,

LEADING RETURNING RUSHERS: Jarveon Howard – 76 carries for 337 yards and three touchdowns; Abdul Adams – 87 carries for 336 yards and three touchdowns

LEADING RETURNING PASSER: Tommy DeVito – 213 completions in 337 attempts for 2,360 yards with 19 touchdowns and five interceptions

LEADING RETURNING RECEIVERS: Taj Harris – 37 receptions for 559 yards and two touchdowns; Aaron Hackett – 23 receptions for 205 yards and six touchdowns

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Jim Stechschulte
About Jim Stechschulte 631 Articles
A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.