Dino Babers likes to stress being “consistently good, not occasionally great.” But in each of Babers’ two years at SU, he has had at least one consistently great wide receiver. Both Amba Etta-Tawo and Steve Ishmael put up record-breaking numbers in their final seasons with the Orange en route to All-American honors.
Now, Syracuse needs to cycle in another wideout to replace Ishmael’s production. Heck, make it two since Erv Philips, the program’s all-time leader in receptions, has graduated and moved on to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He surely would have broken some single-season records if he wasn’t playing second fiddle to both Ishmael and Etta-Tawo.
Coming into this year, you’ll start hearing how all of “Dino’s guys” are now in play in his system. What does that mean? Speed, speed and more speed. The Orange has a bevy of guys on the outside that blaze through a 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds or less. There isn’t a lot of returning production on this year’s team, which rightfully leads to a lot of uncertainty. But that has been the case in each of the past two seasons and led to All-Americans and Biletnikoff contenders.
The Favorite: Jamal Custis
This may come as a shock to some. But in my eyes, it makes too much sense. Custis is a freak 6-foot-5 wideout with a 4.37 40 time. He’s such a great athlete that once upon a time, he considered walking on to the basketball team at SU and even had a dual hoops and football scholarship offer at SMU. While those metrics are only part of the equation, keep one thing in mind: neither Ishmael nor Etta-Tawo had eye-popping numbers prior to their breakout years. Ishmael had never topped 50 catches or 600 yards in a season, while Etta-Tawo had only logged 30 catches for 438 yards for his entire career prior to his explosion at SU. Now look at Custis. He hasn’t produced over the years, in part due to injury. But if he can stay healthy for a whole year and use his size and speed to his advantage, he’s exactly the type of receiver Babers would want to make the focal point of his offense. He can work down the field, over the middle and be a key third down target. Custis’s potential has been talked about for years and 2018 is his last chance to prove it.
In Contention: Devin Butler
Now the lone Devin Butler on the team, the wide receiver has a chance to emerge as the best at his position. Butler comes in as the team’s leading returning wideout. He clearly has the skill since he was one of just two receivers to see the field as a freshman before an injury ended his season. He’s listed as one of Syracuse’s top guys on the outside in the latest depth charts, which comes as no surprise. The question is, will Butler be able to shoulder the load of facing the toughest cornerbacks in the ACC? That is something he’s come far from dealing with during his previous two seasons.
In Contention: Nykeim Johnson
Johnson looks to contend with Sean Riley and safety turned receiver Antwan Cordy to be the go-to slot receiver. He’s right in the Erv Philips mold. He stands at just 5-foot-8, but he’s lightning quick. While Riley saw the bulk of the time as the second slot receiver behind Philips last year, he was more of an asset as a return specialist. He did show some promise as a deep ball guy, but also struggled to hold on to the ball. Meanwhile, Johnson was the lone freshman to crack the receiving rotation and is listed ahead of Riley on the spring depth chart. He even matched Riley’s reception total last season with eight. Whoever wins the slot receiver nod will be in contention to be the team’s yards leader, and Johnson seems to fit that bill.
Honorable Mention: Ravian Pierce
Don’t get me wrong, Pierce may be the most talented pass catcher on the roster. However, his position may be the limiting factor. Babers hasn’t given much use to tight ends throughout his coaching career. Pierce racked up just 263 yards in 2017, which was still good for fourth on the team. But in the previous season, the total tight end yardage was under 50. It’s a pretty safe bet that this team’s receiving yards leader will eclipse 1,000 given Babers’ history. Not to mention the fact that Pierce committed some avoidable penalties which kept him off the field at some points. So while improvements have been made, it’s unlikely that Pierce’s yardage will spike at least four times last year’s production. But don’t be surprised if he is top two on the team in touchdowns.
Sleeper: Ed Hendrix
Freshman don’t see the field often under Babers. Between the scheme and conditioning, there’s a lot to learn and adapt to. But Hendrix is Babers first big receiving recruit since taking over the Orange. He’ll likely see the field right away, it’s just a question of how much. Every year, college football expert Phil Steele does a ranking of his top 50 true freshman wide receivers. In 2017, only three eclipsed 500 yards, while 19 didn’t register a catch. Hendrix isn’t on Steele’s list for 2018, which doesn’t bode well for his chances of spearheading the Orange’s receiving attack, but he certainly has the skill which is why he’s my sleeper pick.
For more on the receiving battle, I also discussed it more at length in the latest Fizz Radio: