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Syracuse Football Position Previews 2018: Wide Receivers

Since Dino Babers came on board in December of 2015, there has been perhaps no unit more impressive for the Orange head man than the wide receiving corps over his first two seasons at the helm.

In both of his first two seasons, the up-tempo offense that Babers has installed has created a superstar pass catcher for the Orange. In Dino’s inaugural campaign in 2016, grad transfer Amba Etta-Tawo became the unlikely hero that shattered the single-season program records for receptions (94), receiving yards (1,482) and yards per game (123.5).

A year later in 2017, senior Steve Ishmael emerged from Etta-Tawo’s shadow and put together what some may say is an even more impressive season, totaling 105 catches for over 1,300 yards and 7 TDs, becoming the school’s all-time leader in receiving yardage.

Couple those two guys with Erv Philips who himself had a stellar senior season last year, the legacy of SU wideouts has been making a name for itself ever since Babers got to the hill. But now with those three gone, what does the WR corps look like for the 2018 season?

The Squad

Star of the Group: Jamal Custis

This pick may seem like it’s coming out of nowhere. To be fair, it kind of is considering Custis played in only eight games last season after suffering a leg injury in week two against Middle Tennessee, but then again Etta-Tawo and Ishmael also both came out of nowhere for their monster senior seasons.

Custis was only healthy enough to catch eight passes last season, but what he did with them gives him the star potential. With those eight catches, Custis went for 120 yards (15.0 avg) and a touchdown. He is a dangerous vertical threat down the field that picks up yards in big chunks. In many ways, he is this year’s Steve Ishmael. A big body at 6-foot-5, 213 pounds, Custis has the length to go up and over smaller defensive backs to catch 50-50 balls.

On top of that big frame, Custis is also surprisingly fast given his size. According to Scout.com, Custis’ 40-yard dash has been clocked as low as 4.37. For some comparison, Antonio Brown, ran a 4.47 at the NFL Combine in 2010.

Flat out, Custis is just an athlete. He had multiple offers to play D1 basketball as well coming out of high school in Philadelphia. He has all the tools to be something really special for this SU wideout corps in 2018. Now, the only question is if he can stay healthy and put it altogether like Etta-Tawo and Ishmael before him.

Something to Prove: Sean Riley

One of the most heartbreaking losses of SU’s 2017 season was its week four downfall at the hands of #25 LSU. For much of the game, it felt like the Orange was outplaying its SEC foe in one of the toughest places to play in the country. Then, a huge turning point came when Sean Riley dropped a sure touchdown in the end zone.

That play isn’t the only reason that Riley has a lot to prove in 2018, but it does bring to the forefront the larger issue with Riley. We know that the junior is a dynamic playmaker. He’s been one of the best punt/kick returners in the ACC over the last two seasons and was even named Preseason All-ACC Third Team at both positions by Athlon Sports. What we’ve yet to see from him, however, is any form of consistency as a true wide receiver.

In his first two seasons, Riley has combined for just 19 catches and a touch over 200 yards. As a starter this season, Riley has to show that he’s more than just a burner that can beat you in the return game. He has to show that he’s a consistent threat as a wide receiver that can catch passes in traffic and provide a spark to the offense when it needs it. We know he’s a diverse guy (he wouldn’t have been named to the Hornung Award [most versatile player in the country] Watch List if he wasn’t), but now it’s time for him to step up and become this season’s version of Erv Philips, a speedy possession receiver that can get you 7-10 catches per game.

Strength: Versatility

We’ve already touched on the versatility of this unit in terms of Riley’s individual versatility and his place on the Hornung Award Watch List, but the squad in general may be one of the most versatile WR corps in the country. Think about it, you’ve got burners like Sean Riley and Nykiem Johnson. You’ve got tall, rangy, athletic down-the-field types in Jamal Custis and Devin Butler that can go up and make plays for you in the vertical passing game. Add that to good depth with the likes of Sharod Johnson and Russell Thomspon-Bishop coming off the bench and you’ve got a group that can do a lot of things well. This isn’t going to a be a group that is going to wow you with any one attribute, but they will do a lot of different things at a high level. Oh yeah, also don’t forget that Devin Butler was a high school quarterback and can throw the ball as well (4-6, 54 yds, TD). Not too many teams can boast that kind of versatility.

Weakness: Experience

Despite being headlined by the upper-class talent of redshirt senior Jamal Custis and junior Devin Butler, this is a position group that has next to nothing in terms of in-game experience. Out of the eight guys listed on the preseason two-deep, only half of them have played more than one game in their careers. As a unit, they have only 75 combined catches and more than half of those come from Devin Butler alone.

In the past, the Orange has been able to rely on steadfast returners like Philips and Ishmael, but that won’t be the case this time around. The early part of the season is going to be a huge learning experience for this year’s wideout squad and they’re going to do that learning quickly if the Orange offense wants to continue to be one of the most potent in the ACC to protect an even younger defense.

Projection

As in year’s past, the success of this group will be dictated will rely more on the fantastic scheme that Dino Babers employs rather than the actual talent of the group. In the first two years of his tenure, Babers has turned a rather lackluster group of wideouts in to absolute king slayers and it doesn’t seem like that will stop this year. A lot like Custis individually, all the tools are there for this unit to be a dangerous one, it just has to put all of it together at once. If Jamal Custis can emerge as filler for the Etta-Tawo-Ishmael void, then this group is going to be in a very good spot. With that being said, the individual numbers may not be as eye-popping as in the previous two years, but this group still has the potential to be the most balanced of the last three years.

Be sure to keep it locked here at orangefizz.net and on Twitter @OrangeFizz to keep up with all of our positional previews as the 2018 season rolls around. Next up on the docket are the safeties with Tyler Aki on Wednesday.

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The Fizz is owned, edited and operated by Damon Amendolara. D.A. is an ’01 Syracuse graduate from the Newhouse School with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.

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