Sometimes it’s fun to look back at past recruiting classes to see how each player panned out. Did the top recruits live up to that billing? Were there some surprises? Who was underrated/overrated? This 2016 class saw the highs and the lows of Syracuse Football and was the first for Head Coach Dino Babers. The 4-8 season, the 2017 Clemson upset, and the spectacular 2018 season.
As we head into the meat off the offseason, some of these players are still on the SU roster (thanks in large part to being granted an extra year of eligibility due to Covid-19). So let’s take a look back at the 2016 class that was 62nd nationally, according to 247sports.com and review it.
- Moe Neal – 3 star ATH
- As the top dog in this class, Neal had lofty expectations coming into his freshman year. He never redshirted (somewhat of a rarity at SU), in fact Neal scored a touchdown on his first collegiate carry. Neal finished in several top 10’s in the SU record books and set a single-game record for yards per carry (minimum 8 carries) taking eight handoffs for 159 yards against Louisville in 2018.
- Neal was fortunate to never miss a game with injury as he played in all 49 games between 2016 and 2019 and was a co-captain of the offense his senior year. He finished with 2,560 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground… this decision is pretty easy.
- Hit or Miss: HIT
- Sam Heckel – 3 star OT
- Heckel was a big get for the Orange, the Wisconsin native spurned several Midwest Power Five offers to play his ball in the Salt City. Scout.com had Heckel pegged as the No. 2 ranked guard prospect from the state of Wisconsin, not a bad state to be playing in the trenches. Surprisingly enough, no offer from the Badgers!?
- Heckel redshirted his freshman season but was a member of the travel squad which is worth something. He blew up in his second season in Orange. Heckel started all 12 games at guard and was the team leader in pancakes with 41. The offense was prolific that season as well, third in the ACC with about 456 yards per game.
- His sophomore season he only started one game but played in all 13 logging 444 snaps. The offense that season was ranked 11th nationally and a critical part of the 10-3 season. In 2019, Heckel started against Liberty in the opener, but didn’t play another game for the Orange as he was medically disqualified. But Heckel was a tremendous leader for the program and the University as he was a member in several service organizations and won several awards for his service in the community.
- Because he had a dominant sophomore year and contributed in a big way in the 2018 season, Heckel is 100% a hit and if his medical shortcomings didn’t derail the final two years he had to play…. who knows the spectacular things he could’ve accomplished.
- Hit or Miss: HIT
- Jaquwan Nelson – 3 star DE/OLB
- Nelson picked Syracuse over schools like Georgia, Kentucky, and Miami (originally committed here)… Additionally, he played high school football in the talent hotbed that is the state of Florida. Expectations were high from the start for Nelson out of Fort Lauderdale, FL.
- Nelson never played a snap for Syracuse. He redshirted his freshman season and was booted from the program in the spring of 2017 for legal problems. Read all about them by clicking the link there. Unfortunate for Syracuse, the Orange could’ve used Nelson’s athleticism and potential as a pass rusher on the edge or at linebacker. This decision is pretty straightforward.
- Hit or Miss: MISS
- Kenneth (KJ) Ruff – 3 star ILB
- Ruff also hailed from Fort Lauderdale, FL and the aforementioned talent hotbed that is the sunshine state. Syracuse was considerably late in offering Ruff (probably due to coaching turnover). He was offered, visited, and committed within a 3 day period in early December. The linebacker prospect was no slouch as a recruit either with offers from Clemson, Virginia, and South Carolina amongst others.
- Ruff ended up playing on the line for the Orange and played in 44 games between 2016 and 2019. Like a plane taking off, Ruff got better and better as the years went. He was a reserve his freshman year, then played in every game as a sophomore and started on special teams. His junior year saw his make 19 tackles, 4.5 for loss, and 2 sacks. As a senior he started on the line and was named the #26 freak on Bruce Feldman’s top 50 freaks list. He started all 12 games for the injured Mckinley Williams and finished his career with 61 tackles, 8.5 TFL, and 2 sacks.
- This one was a difficult decision (first of many I anticipate), I think for the contributions Ruff made in the ‘17, ‘18, and ‘19 seasons as a reserve and starter, he deserves some credit and he was also a tremendous athlete.
- Hit or Miss: HIT
- Rex Culpepper – 3 star QB
- Culpepper was a hold-over recruit for Syracuse. He committed in the summer of 2015 and then signed with Syracuse on February 3rd. I’m sure Dino Babers had to give hom reasons to stay committed to SU and believed that Culpepper was the man to run his OITNF offense. After watching his high school film, yeah I believe it.
- Culpepper was highly regarded on the recruiting trail with offers from Clemson, Florida, Miami, Ohio State, and many others. Obviously, this was a ginormous win for Babers and Company, especially so early in the Babers era.
- Culpepper enrolled early at Syracuse in the spring of 2016 and redshirted but was a member of the travel squad. As a redshirt-freshman Culpepper saw some game action and started his first career game against Boston College. The Orange lost 42-14, but Culpepper was decent with a 24/34-280 yd-2 TD/1 INT stat line.
- Culpepper battled testicular cancer in the 2018 season and of course overcame it in spectacular fashion! He returned to play in the 2019 season and played in two games. In 2020, Culpepper started five games and played in 10. He was 94-140 with 1,028 yards passing and 9 TD/8 INT. At times he looked efficient like against Liberty and NC State, but at others not so much.
- Going into the 2021 season, the jury is still out. Culpepper has the option to return to the program for another season as a graduate student, but an official announcement has yet to be made. If he returns he will battle with Tommy DeVito, Garrett Shrader, JaCobian Morgan, Dillon Markiewicz, and David Summers for the starting job heading.
- I’ll revisit this decision following his final season in college, wherever that may be.
Check back next week for Part 2, when we examine recruits 6-10!