Syracuse University has been dubbed a lot of things over the years. However, no other nickname is as accurate as the title Dino Babers has brought to the community: “Wide Receiver U.” No, the Orange aren’t going to produce the flashiest players, but you know good and well a Babers coached team is going to have guys on the outside who can make plays.
Every year a Syracuse receiver steps up to be the program’s main guy.
2018: Jamal Custis – 51 catches, 906 yards and 6 touchdowns.
2017: Steve Ishmael – 105 catches, 1347 yards and 7 touchdowns.
2016: Amba Etta-Tawo – 94 catches, 1482 yards and 14 touchdowns.
As you can see, the production has gone down for SU’s top target in recent years. This season, there’s a number of guys who can step up and claim that role. With that said, the path to identifying who that player will be is very unclear. First off, who will new quarterback Tommy DeVito latch onto as a favorite target? Beyond that, there’s a transfer, a couple guys looking to break out after mediocre seasons and a sophomore poised to take the next step as a premier receiver in the ACC. Here’s how we split up this year’s batch of wide outs.
Tier One (Upside)
Taj Harris: After a successful freshman year, Harris returns to SU with possibly the most potential of any player on the roster this year. What sets him apart from the pack is his upside and experience in Babers’ system. Other than Harris, every projected top-line receiver for SU has either seemingly hit their ceiling in the system or is playing in the up-tempo offense for the first time. Neither of those concerns are necessarily deal breakers, but they are something to consider when evaluating this year’s group. Harris broke the SU freshman receiving record last year for both catches (40) and yards (565). There’s a lot to like about the New Jersey native, including his big play potential. Given DeVito’s tendency to rely on the deep ball, Harris has to be considered the top candidate to lead the Orange in receiving.
Trishton Jackson: The biggest unknown among SU’s 2019 wide receivers. If you want to put a lot of stock into Jackson’s cameo in the Camping World Bowl, you’re likely pretty optimistic about what he can bring to the Orange offense. Former SU quarterback Eric Dungey found Jackson for a touchdown on the opening snap of the fourth quarter. That was just his second career score after playing in 10 games at Michigan State. Sure, we expect him to be put in a better position to succeed in a Syracuse system that puts more of an emphasis on the passing game. However, Jackson is unproven. At 6-foot-1, 194-pounds, he has the size to compete at the highest level. There are just more hurdles for him to get through than the returning Harris.
Tier Two (Maxed Out?)
Sean Riley: By the numbers, Riley had a very solid junior season at SU. After two seasons with just over 100 receiving yards, Riley exploded for 756 yards, the second best mark on the team. Maybe fans are harsh on him because they’re still upset about the drop against LSU two years ago? Jokes aside, it does seem like Riley doesn’t get the respect he deserves, especially after a breakout campaign in 2018. The case for him to continue his upward trend this year is simple: continuity. Riley enters his fourth year with the program and has become more than just a specialist. It should be noted that the Los Angeles native has done a fabulous job in the returner role over the years, so anything he can do at receiver is just icing on the cake. Riley has the potential to hit 1,000 yards as a receiver. The problem? He’s running out of time.
Nykiem Johnson: A huge sophomore season from Johnson has him in the conversation. He jumped from just 68 yards as a freshman to 565 yards as a sophomore. On top of that, you may remember his late-game touchdown connection with DeVito against North Carolina. Maybe that will be the dynamic duo through the air this year? With two years of eligibility left, Johnson doesn’t fir the “Maxed Out?” category quite as well as Riley. Speed is a big factor for the third-year receiver and he’ll likely receive less attention than guys like Harris and Jackson when lined up on the outside. He’s a dark hoarse to be the team’s number one guy, but it’s a possibility.
Prediction: Harris makes more strides as a sophomore and makes a name for himself with DeVito at the helm. You could throw a guy like Ed Hendrix in this conversation, but he’s such a wild card given his injury problems. Either way, a plethora of talented receivers is a good problem for Babers to have.