Newly hired offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was supposed to be a breath of fresh air for the Syracuse offense, mixing up formations and play-calls while retaining the principles of head coach Dino Babers’ “Orange is the New Fast” scheme. To go full Babers and put it in metaphorical terms, the SU offense didn’t need to be an iPhone 12, just an iPhone X with a brand new software update. Forget the fact that the offense had lost its best wide receiver and running back. And top of that, was starting a fullback at left guard and two brand new ball-carriers. Most SU fans just wanted to see something different.
Instead, it was 2019 all over again. QB Tommy DeVito and company could not string drives together. The Orange went three-and-out five times in the second half. The run game was nonexistent, but that was to be expected. Devito needed to be better. The junior only completed 13 of 31 passes for 121 yards. But it is where those 31 passes went that left people confused.
Taj Harris was targeted 15 times. That’s right, 15. He had to emerge early as a number one receiver early, and did not do so. Harris officially dropped one pass, but there were at least three other opportunities to make plays that the Florida native missed. He only caught five passes for 64 yards.
The rest of the receiving corps was thrown to 11 times, and Jawhar Jordan caught all three of the passes that came his way. That’s 29 in total. And this leads us to the point of bewilderment.
Tight ends Aaron Hackett and Luke Benson got all of two targets. This is unacceptable. Syracuse doesn’t have a clear number one receiver, and spreading the ball around is paramount. Working in both Hackett, who had a breakout season last year, and Benson, who was regarded as an up-and-coming talent around the program, is the key to relieving pressure on DeVito. Throw them quick passes, throw them out routes and flat routes, or target them in the red zone. Both Hackett and Benson have the potential to be X-factors. There is no point in not using them.
So where does the blame lie? Is it on Gilbert, for not calling plays to utilize Hackett’s skillset, or is it DeVito, since he didn’t throw the ball Hackett’s way?
I’m going to go with the former. Gilbert needs to mix up his play-calling. Besides the one Canadian-football style play where Jawhar Jordan came running up to the line of scrimmage and caught a swing pass, there was nothing innovative coming from the Syracuse sideline. It was about as vanilla of a game plan as a Run-n-Shoot offensive coordinator could produce. DeVito was bound to struggle behind a patchwork offensive line (he was sacked seven times). While he does need to get through his progressions, it’s on the coaches to protect him and find options in the playbook to help the offense progress. The best way to do that? Throw quick passes to the tight ends.