Alright, let’s put a bow on this review of the 2016 Syracuse Football recruiting class. This was Dino Babers’ inaugural list of imports, and like many holdover classes there were some hits but also some misses. Oftentimes it takes just one below average recruiting campaign to spell disaster for a program in the future. Now this 2016 class wasn’t terrible but there’s a reason why SU went 1-10 in 2020 and this is a contributing factor.
If you missed any of the isolated reviews, I’ll link each of parts 1-4 below to view at your leisure.
Now that we’ve completed the skinny on each of the prospects from the ‘16 cycle, let’s grade this class out holistically and pick some superlatives on each side of the bar.
OVERALL GRADE: B-
It’s important to remember that this is Syracuse we’re talking about. The Orange aren’t pulling in 4 stars left and right (notice I didn’t even mention 5 stars). So the SU talent bed, especially during a period of coaching change in the Orange program, won’t be very vast, nor rich. So what we’re looking at is a class full of three star prospects. Some ready to play immediately, some not so much.
There are players in this class that blossomed early on their SU careers, but others that either took some time to get their feet underneath them, or just flamed out altogether. Overall, 20 of 21 recruits from the 2016 class received marks of hit or miss. The lone exception is Rex Culpepper because he has a unique situation and still has some football to play somewhere.
Just over half of the 20 prospects graded from the 2016 class received a “HIT” grade upon my reviews. Eleven is the exact tally. So again, not bad but that means nine of the players Babers recruited to come in and make an impact on the program did not impact. If they receive a miss grade it means they didn’t benefit the program either at all, or not enough.
Again, this was a holdover class so this is to be expected. Take a look at Michigan’s 2015 class, Minnesota’s 2017 class, or even Penn State’s 2014 class. Sometimes there are hidden gems, and at other times there are busts that end up transferring from the program. There are examples of each throughout this class.
MVP: MOE NEAL
This was a difficult decision to make, I really struggled between a few different players who you’ll still see get personal recognition. It has to be Neal though. Yes, he was the top prospect from the ‘16 SU cycle, but he lived up to those standards and then some.
He played all 49 possible games over his four years on the Hill and never redshirted. Neal also scored on his first collegiate carry, on his way to over 2,500 yards and 14 more scores over his career. He also served as co-captain of the offense during his senior year. So he came in as the top dog and that’s’ exactly how he leaves as the most valuable player from this recruiting cycle.
GEMS: SEAN RILEY, KENDALL COLEMAN, EVAN FOSTER, JOSH BLACK, MCKINLEY WILLIAMS
Before I dive into the gems, let me set the stage for what I consider a gem. Anyone who had little to no power five offers and was a major contributor fits this bill. Additionally, anybody in the back half of the class that was or is a major contributor gets onto this list.
Sean Riley is first, he was the 8th-ranked prospect in this class and was a four year contributor. The scat-back type, gadget player racked up yardage between returning and catching. Riley started games at slot receiver for the Orange and led the team in all-purpose yardage as a junior.
Kendall Coleman was right behind Riley as the #9 recruit, but was arguably even more impressive than Riley. SU was his only P5 offer out of high school, he also had some MAC opportunities. Coleman started 11 games as a true freshman and even battled through injuries as a sophomore.
In case you missed part 3, Coleman set a Camping World Bowl record with 3 sacks vs West Virginia in 2018. Coleman’s final line is impressive: 44 games, 137 tackles, 26.5 tfl’s, and 15.5 sacks. For those wondering why he wasn’t selected MVP, well it came down to Coleman and Riley. Coleman actually won the team’s MVP award at the end of his career.
Evan Foster was a solid recruiting pickup for SU. He had a grand total of three offers including Purdue and Bowling Green. He had a much bigger impact than anyone may have expected. Foster started at safety for three seasons starting with his sophomore campaign. Foster led the secondary in tackles in each of his three starting seasons and even brought down Trevor Lawrence for his first career sack.
Josh Black and Mckinley Williams are still adding to their illustrious SU careers with a big fall slate still on the horizon. They don’t need to prove much more though, I’ve already got the d-line duo as a lock for gem status. Black was the 16th rated recruit and Williams was technically the worst on paper. The pair has combined for hundreds of tackles, several tackles for loss, and a plethora of sacks.
BUSTS: DEVIN BUTLER, TIM WALTON, DEVON CLARKE
Time for the harder section of this article. I hate to label anybody a bust because everyone’s situation is different whether it be injuries, academics, or personal issues. However, recruits are pitched by the coaching staff to have a role in the program and are labeled the future. Well if players don’t actually do what they’re brought to Syracuse to do which is play, then they are a bust. Plain and simple.
First is Devin Butler, he had a promising start to his career but missed a game during his junior season due to a violation of team rules and things went downhill from there. He eventually transferred to D-2 Tiffin University. As the 6th best recruit in the ‘16 class, he didn’t make enough of an impact as SU to warrant any attention.
Next is Tim Walton, this one hurts because Walton is a Detroit, MI native and if you know me you know I like my Mitten state recruits. He had some impressive offers out of Cass Tech High School, but played sparingly for the Orange before hitting the exits for Texas Southern University ahead of his senior season.
Finally we have Devon Clarke, this is a very strange case. The Florida native is another guy that had good offers coming out of high school, but never really met expectations. His problem was the guy ranked right above him, Evan Foster, emerged as “the guy” in the secondary and stole every minute possible. Reports circulated recently that Clarke is no longer enrolled at Syracuse after being listed on the 2020 roster.
WHAT IFS?: JAQUWAN NELSON, REX CULPEPPER, MICHAEL CLARK, MICHAEL O’SULLIVAN, JAMES PIERRE, JO-EL SHAW
Time for the imagination section of this piece. Some of these situations are similar and easily explained, but others are puzzling. In any case, they contributed to lack of talent, lack of depth, and problems that led to explaining why SU went 1-10 in 2020.
The pair of Michael’s (Clark and O’Sullivan) were offensive lineman that had promising futures in Orange but were medically disqualified before the program could get some returns on investments. Head injuries derailed the careers of both Clark and O’Sullivan and perhaps explain why Syracuse struggled to field depth the past two seasons. If Clark and O’Sullivan are healthy and have their hands in the dirt, maybe Tommy DeVito isn’t lying in it.
Jaquwan Nelson was a HUGE recruiting win for Syracuse out of Florida. He was originally committed to Miami and also had offers from Kentucky and Georgia. So yeah, this is a high caliber player that was projected to wreak havoc as an OLB/DE hybrid. Unfortunately, that never came to fruition as he was kicked out of the program after his freshman season due to legal troubles. We know the SU secondary has been phenomenal the past few years, but Nelson could’ve been a difference-maker in a lackluster recent linebacker room.
Rex Culpepper is about as unique a case as they come, as we all know. He was tabbed for the future of Syracuse Football under Babers and was a perfect fit for the OITNF system. Culpepper actually had a very impressive offer list out of Plant, FL.
He started a game as a redshirt-freshman and threw a pair of touchdowns. Things looked good for the youngin’ early on, but of course the unexpected happened. Culpepper battled testicular cancer in 2018 and miraculously overcame it. He returned to the field this past season and performed incredibly, considering the circumstances. If Culpepper doesn’t have the medical problems flare up you have to wonder how high he could’ve flown. Maybe it’s Rex Culpepper we’re talking about as the hero in 2018 and not Eric Dungey.
Finally we have players who signed letters of intent to ‘Cuse, but never played in the Carrier Dome. Pierre originally signed to North Carolina, but backed out due to academic issues. Well the same happened at Syracuse, he didn’t qualify academically. Pierre ended up at Florida Atlantic and put together a nice collegiate career. Good enough to find himself as a rostered member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Can you imagine a secondary with Andre Cisco, Evan Foster, Trill Williams, Iffy Melifonwu, and Pierre?
Jo-El Shaw wasn’t as big of a ding for the Orange. SU got it’s top pick for tailback in Moe Neal, but Shaw had a unique skill set that maybe could’ve helped Syracuse move the ball over the last two years. Shaw didn’t qualify academically for Syracuse and ended up at Lackawanna C.C. and eventually Kent State. He racked up the yardage at those two destinations. Can you picture a backfield with Moe Neal, Shaw, Jarveon Howard, and Abdul Adams? Maybe Adams isn’t at SU if Shaw is on the roster.