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Syracuse Looking for New Playmakers

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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As Syracuse gets its stars aligned along the offensive line, the program lost most of its talent at wide receiver and running back.

As quickly as Syracuse became a feel-good story in 2018, the Orange returned to irrelevancy last fall.

Syracuse began the season ranked but then suffered blowout losses in two of the first three weeks. After seemingly steadying themselves against non-Power 5 competition, the Orange lost four straight conference games. Even winning two of the last three contests left them ineligible for a bowl trip.

The problems that plagued Syracuse offensively last year appear to be on their way to being fixed, but the strength of the unit in 2019 may prove to be this season’s weakness. The Orange will have to develop receiving playmakers and do it during an abbreviated offseason with a new coordinator in order to return to the six-win plateau.

The biggest issue Syracuse’s offense, which led the program to 10 wins in 2018, faced last fall was protection. The Orange allowed 50 sacks -- the most in the ACC -- yielding 4.17 sacks per game, which was the third-most among the 130 FBS teams. To say quarterback Tommy DeVito was under siege would be an understatement. Syracuse lost one offensive line starter in Week 1 and then another left the program midway through the season.

Fortunately, DeVito made it through the year without serious injury, and he returns behind an offensive line that will at least be more experienced. Whether that experience pays off is a question mark, but if it improves to just the middle of the pack in sacks allowed, head coach Dino Babers and new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert are going to be able to do a lot more with their high-flying offense. Florida transfer guard Chris Bleich could also provide even more experience along the offensive line should he receive approval for immediate eligibility from the NCAA.

The issue now, though, is that as Syracuse gets its stars aligned along the offensive line, the program lost most of its talent at wide receiver and running back. Wide receiver Trishton Jackson left early for the NFL draft; he alone posted 66 catches for 1,023 yards and 11 touchdowns in 12 games. The next closest Orange receiver had 559 yards with only two scores, and the team didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher.

Syracuse’s leader on the ground, Moe Neal, gained 846 yards, which was 500 yards better than any of the other running backs on the roster. Neal graduated as did receiver Sean Riley, who was third on the team in receiving.

In total, Jackson, Riley and Neal accounted for more than 50 percent of the yards Syracuse gained from scrimmage last season.

Some analysts and fans pinned Syracuse’s sack problem last year on DeVito, but that really wasn’t fair. According to Athlon Sports, DeVito became just the second quarterback in the last 10 years to complete 63 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns, fewer than nine turnovers and 35 sacks in the same season. Behind better offensive line play, DeVito is a legit threat as a top signal caller in the ACC. But what weapons help him fulfill his potential is a big question mark, especially during an offseason where Syracuse lost most of its spring practices.

The receiver DeVito will be counting on to break out is rising junior Taj Harris. He finished second on the team in receptions and receiving yards last year and averaged nearly the same amount of yards per catch (15.5 versus 15.1) as Jackson, but despite all the opposing defense’s attention going towards Jackson, Harris finished with two touchdowns in 2019.

In the backfield, rising senior Abdul Adams is expected to start. Last season, he had the second-most carries among Syracuse running backs, but he averaged under 3.9 yards per attempt.

With inexperience at wide receiver and running back, DeVito may need to rely more upon his tight ends this fall. Aaron Hackett and Luke Benson combined for just 31 receptions but nine touchdowns in 2019. They need to be a bigger focal point of the offense along with veteran tight end Chris Elmore, who, in the past, has been used more as a special teams player.

But even with the potential for more splash plays from tight ends, Syracuse isn’t going to win six games without further development from the skilled positions on offense. Wide receivers have been able to flourish under Babers at Syracuse, and DeVito is the right quarterback behind center, but the question is whether there’s enough practice time for all of Syracuse’s offensive pieces to gel together in Gilbert’s first year and get the Orange back to a bowl game.