Then and Now - football - Part 3 | Syracusefan.com

Then and Now - football - Part 3

SWC75

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(What I wrote in August is in italics. What I wrote in December is not.)

DeVito was Dino’s first quarterback recruit after he came here and was obviously the guy he felt could be his Jimmy Garoppolo or Matt Johnson here. I predicted that once he took over the reins from Eric Dungey, who was fine all—around quarterback and leader but not a great passer, that DeVito, who had the reputation from practice of having he strongest and most accurate arm on the team from the moment he showed up, would re-write the SU record book. Well the ink is still dry on the record book. The big problem was that he was playing in front of a Swiss cheese line that has allowed 88 sacks in two years, the most in the country…

We haven’t really seen what Tommy can do because we haven’t protected him. But we have seen what he can’t do. He’s not a good scrambler, has trouble reading the pressure and can’t throw effectively on the run. His greatest strength is also his biggest weakness: he has a phobia about turning the ball over and gives up on plays when they go bad, (as they often do), throwing the ball out of bounds or running out of bounds with it. In our early games last year, we were consistently still in the games going into the fourth quarter because we avoided turnovers. The defense would then sag because they’d been on the field too long. When Tommy got hurt, Rex Culpepper and JaCobian both tended to have a run of 2-3 turnovers in a row earlier in the game that would take us hopelessly out of it. But Tommy gave up on plays that might have still had some potential. He couldn’t improvise. We often punted when, under a more dynamic QB, we’d have still been driving down the field.


Tommy came up short in every department. Maybe it was two years of being sacked. Maybe it was the lack of confidence his coach had in him. But in 2 ½ games, he completed 32 of 52 passes, (a credible 61.5%) for 388 yards but only 1TD pass and 2 interceptions. Once Babers pulled him for Shrader, he never played again and hit the transfer portal. I would like to have seen him stick around for the season in case Shrader got hurt or we needed a passer to make a comeback. I wouldn’t have minded using two quarterbacks the way Dino kept saying Arizona did when they went 12-1 back in ’98. But Dino’s a one QB guy and it wasn’t Tommy anymore. He wound up his career here with 28TD passes and 12 interceptions, numbers I was hoping he’d have in one season – and then improve upon.

Shrader, like DeVito was a 4-star prospect coming out of high school and we don’t get a lot of them. We didn’t get this one either. He went to Mississippi State and played extensively his freshman year there. Phil Steele rated him #23 coming out of high school, higher than Tommy, (rankings are more specific than stars). 247 had him the #7 dual-threat QB. He apparently left MSU because of a coaching change. He wasn’t the type of passer Mike Leach was looking for, which is interesting, because I think Dino Babers would want the same kind of quarterback as Leach. Shrader’s presence here thus suggests dissatisfaction with DeVito. Athlon: “Shrader faces an uphill battle to take the mantle from DeVito this offseason. But his mobility and knack for playmaking could well come in handy once the games begin.”

Watch the highlight film below, which is interesting since it’s “most of” his plays at MSU – the college level - and thus includes his bad plays as well as his good plays. What I see is an aggressive, confident, tough runner with a Dungey-like penchant for leaving his feet or lowering his shoulder. He loves to pull the ball away from the running back and run right up the middle, into the teeth of the defense. But defenses can adjust to that and some of his determined runs end at the line of scrimmage. He takes a lot of big hits, which can end a season pre-maturely. But DeVito stays in the pocket and he hasn’t been on the field at the end of the last two seasons. He also showed a tendency to make unexpected laterals to try to extend plays. He has a good arm and sees the whole field – but not everything in it. He isn’t afraid to throw into coverage and there’s one play where he throws the ball right to a linebacker, much as DeVito famously did in the 2018 UNC comeback. Fortunately it was dropped. But others weren’t. Still, he made some nice sideline throws and showed he can throw on the run. He’ll be an exciting player but sometimes it’s the other team’s fans that will be excited.

Most of Garrett Shrader's pass and run attempts at Mississippi State:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7NwycPb4V0&t=144s

I had to watch that tape over again. It was basically what we’ve seen here at Syracuse: Shrader loves to run the ball and does it well and hard. He’s a tough kid who takes big hits and keeps going. He’s a bit more turnover-prone than he has been here. I was surprised that he managed to avoid turnovers for the most part at Syracuse with that wild throwing style and his frequent runs but he did. In the tape he showed he could pass short effectively if he had a chance to get into a rhythm but intermediate and long passes are an adventure. I think he can improve as a passer next year but he’s not a guy who’s going to win shoot-outs or mount big comebacks.

Shrader didn’t get much help from his receivers, who were a pretty young group due to defections. Dino kept saying we have to wait for them to grow up. If we’d held on to what we had, we might have seen better rout-running, better reactions to scrambles, fewer drops and more big plays.

Last year people kept complaining that Taj Harris, who had sculpted himself down to 164 pounds, lacked the strength to win the battles for the ball along the sideline that we kept throwing to him. Occasionally he would make a big play but too often he would be forced out of bounds or have the ball batted away and occasionally intercepted. What we really needed was a big, strong wide-out who could win those battles. It was an odd complaint, (I should know: I made it myself), because the Heisman Trophy winner turned out to be Alabama’s wideout DeVonta Smith, who was 6-0 170. Taj Harris is not DeVonta Smith but Smith proved you don’t need to be muscular to succeed at that position, as did our own Marvin Harrison a while back.

Another thing that made it odd is that the coaching staff has made a point of recruiting big, strong wide receivers:


2017
Russell Thompson-Bishop 6-1 200 ran a 4.46 forty-yard dash and as a basketball player led the state of Connecticut with 4.6 blocks per game – at 6-1. As a senior he caught 46 passes for 1025 yards (22.3) and 14 scores.
Cameron Jordan 6-3 195 ran a 4.51 forty. ““As a senior captain, tallied 22 receptions for 614 yards (27.9!) and 11 touchdowns”

2018
Ed Hendrix 6-3 195 “Caught 68 passes for 1,535 yards (22.6 avg.) and 24 touchdowns in three seasons for the Warriors, including 27 receptions for 585 yards (21.7 avg.) and 14 touchdowns as a senior captain.”
Anthony Queeley 6-2 194 “As a senior captain in 2017, made 77 receptions for 1,197 yards (15.5 avg.) and 13 TDs”

2019
Luke Benson 6-3 210 “Finished his scholastic career with 23 catches for 404 yards (17.6 avg.) and six scores … Carded 66 career tackles, including nine sacks, on defense … Also played basketball and ran track … Was the SOL Continental Conference 100-meter dash champion as a junior and placed eighth at the state meet.”
Kevin Mital 6-3 210 “was Division I Offensive Player of the Year, logging a division-record 17 touchdowns and 1,058 yards”

2020
Damien Alford 6-5 210 “Totaled 1,379 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns, including 26 catches for 590 yards (22.7 avg.) and 10 scores.”
Justin Barron 6-4 208 “made 29 receptions for 525 yards (18.1 avg.) and five touchdowns.”
JaVontae Williams 6-0 203 “As a junior, had 33 receptions for 563 yards (17.1 avg.) … Played sparingly as a senior, making eight catches for 278 yards (34.8 avg.) and two touchdowns … Team captain.”
Isaiah Jones 6-4 200 “19 passes for 238 yards (12.5 avg.) and one touchdown.”

Thompson-Bishop, Jordan, Hendrix and Mitral are no longer on the team. Thompson-Bishop and Mitral never caught a pass for SU. Jordan and Hendrix both caught 3 passes for 20 and 24 yards and no scores. Queeley finally saw some action last year and caught 37 passes for 378 yards and 2 scores. He was our ‘possession’ receiver, football’s equivalent of baseball’s ‘contact’ hitter. If you don’t make contact, are you a hitter? If you don’t have possession, are you a receiver? Benson has caught 14 passes in two years for 239 yards and 5 scores, including a 70 yarder and a 59 yarder. Alford caught one pass last year for 3 yards. Barron, Williams and Jones have yet to catch a pass and Barron is now a defensive back. Each player has his own individual story but the cumulative result is still very disappointing.


…and continues to be so.

There’s been discussion of putting Harris in Nykeim Johnson’s ‘slot’ position and having Queeley and one of the other big dudes, perhaps Alford or Jones, handle the rough stuff on the outside while Harris gets to play on an ‘island’. From my 2019 preview: “He had great hands and could run with the ball after the catch. He just seemed to have good instincts for the position. He would up with 40 catches for 565 yards and 3TDs and left people believing he could do a lot more.” 2020: “As a freshman he looked like a coming star with 40r 565yd 3td. He was quick and smooth and seemed reliable. Last year his numbers dipped slightly 37r 559yd 2td but his effort seemed to be lacking at times and there were a couple of sideline incidents suggesting that something was wrong…. At this point it’s hard to tell what direction he’s going in, both in terms of his body and his production…. (Triston) Jackson left this message for Harris: “He was telling me to become a leader. Be more vocal. I’m a junior now, and I have to step up and be the leader to show the guys…”

The direction he was going in was out. he hit the transfer portal after the third game and will be playing at Kentucky next year – if things work out for him. Maybe he cam become a vocal leader there.

Queeley earned a spot in the starting lineup last year with making 37 catches for 378 yards and 2 touchdowns. He didn’t have explosive plays but, with the defenses concentrating on Harris, he showed an ability to get open, catch the ball consistently and get the most out of the opportunities he had. At 6-2 205, he’s not going to ger knocked around by anyone. Babers: “He’s one of those guys that, when you throw the ball to him, he normally catches it. [A useful trait.] You just don’t see him drop a lot of footballs, whether it’s in practice or in the games. He’s someone that you can really depend on.” SI: “If he takes a step forward, it would force defenses to leave Harris with single coverage.”

He took a step backwards with 15 catches for 222 yards and 2TDs. The quarterback and scheme changes didn’t help him or any receiver but it was more than that. He had some drops and just didn’t have a strong year overall.

Benson is a tight end with wide receiver speed. He could probably be used as the other wide-out, although I’ve not heard of any thinking in that direction. He’s played behind Aaron Hackett but managed to wow the fans with two long touchdowns, 70 and 59 yards where he pulled away from defensive backs. The Daily Orange: “Benson, on the other hand, is the faster of the two, often able to beat linebackers in man-to-man coverage and even outran defensive backs at times last season. That skillset could be easily utilized if he can find the ball in the open field.” SI: “With the departure of Aaron Hackett, Benson is expected to step into the starting tight end position. He has already shown playmaking ability as a pass catcher during his first two seasons. His ability to become a more consistent blocker will be key. The tight end position was not targeted a lot in 2020, but if it is utilized more in 2021, Benson could have a big year.”

He had a very small year, with 5 catches for 22 yards and no scores after scoring 5 times on 14 catches for 239 yards in his first two years here. Then he, too hit the transfer portal, making our passing game look like a sinking ship.

If Harris isn’t shifted to the ‘slot’, Jackson will have the inside track on it. Steele has him as the starter and rated him the #128 recruit, 24/7 #98. He caught 10 passes for 69 yards last year but did not score, not exactly what you are looking for from your slot man, who is supposed to be the dagger you slice through the defense with after you’ve forced them to focus on the wide-outs. He’s supposed to cut across the field, looking for daylight or go deep over the middle. Nykeim Johnson, the man to be replaced, caught 20 passes last year for 323 yards and 4 scores, on an 83 yarder. Drops were a problem for Jackson. The DO: ““Three drops came on long throws from quarterback Tommy DeVito, the first being a ball that Courtney Jackson saw fall right through his hands in the first half... The third, which came on a third down and long where DeVito escaped the pass rush, hit Jackson’s hands.”

Courtney actually had a nice year and became Shrader’s #1 target. He led the team with 37 catches for 389 yards and 3 scores and also had a 64 yard punt return for a score.

Alford is the definition of a big target at 6-6 215. Steele has him #208, 24/7 #120. From last year’s preview: ““Alford is comfortable springing into the air for a ball on the outside over outmatched defensive backs. He’s also faster than most of the players defending him but that could change against ACC competition. However, Alford gives DeVito a weapon who he can launch a jump ball to. Alford basically has the size of a tight end, with the speed and physical traits of a receiver.”

Alford showed flashes, catching 13 balls for 249 yards and two scores. The two scores were a 73 yarder against over-matched Albany and a now legendary 45 yarder from a flattened Shrader to beat Virginia Tech. But he also has a lot to learn about running routes, getting away from defenders, making big catches and also blocking. Too often, that big body whiffed on key blocks. Still, he could become an exciting player as he matures.

Pena made one very big splash, a 98-yard kick-off return against NC State, our first kick-six since 2011. He averaged 32.1 yards for 7 KOR but caught only one pass for -1 yards. Like Cooper Lutz, he was a running back in high school switched to receiver by the coaches and he could, in a pinch be moved back. Steele has him #157 as a receiver, 24/7 as #106 as an ‘athlete’. Running backs coach Mike Lynch: “He’s a guy we can put in there, obviously good in the pass game.” “He understands the runs now, too. He can do both. You can run inside zone. You can run power. As we move forward, you could see his role expand.” His high school stats are excellent: 1,550 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns during his senior season. For now, he’ll be in the battle, if there is one, for the slot.

Pena had the most explosive speed of any receiver, as he showed with a 98 yard kick-off return last year. We kept wondering when the next kick-six would come but Pena was hurt in mid-season and Jackson had to take over those duties and he got the big return vs. Boston College. They make a good 1-2 punch in the slot and on those returns. Trebor actually had only two catches but one went for a 64 TD vs. Clemson, no less.

Sharod Johnson came in with Nykeim Johnson and Kevin Johnson Jr. but in three years has caught only 12 passes for 138 yards and no scores. And 7 of those catches for 97 of those yards came as a freshman. He’s been strictly a depth and special teams guy. Nunes: “Yet, even if he’s not directly contributing, having a veteran with his experience could prove pretty valuable for a position group full of young guys.”

Sharod continued his non-descript career with a non-descript 14 catches for 184 yards and no scores.

Gadsden, Hatcher and Long are the wide receiver recruits for this year. Oronde’s father played for the Miami Dolphins from 1998-2003, catching 227 passes for 3,252 yards and 22 touchdowns. If Junior can do as well here, we’ll be in great shape. Steele ranks him #153, 24/7 #146. He’s another big dude at 6-5, 210. He had 35 catches for 580 yards and 12 touchdowns, quite a TD percentage.

Gadsden had 2 catches for 24 yards. He and Alford would make quite a pair of targets on the outside in futute years.

Hatcher is tall but thinner at 6-3 170. Steele has him at #127, 24/7 at #131. He had 56 receptions for 1,400 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2019. Nunes: “Hatcher’s tall (6-foot-3), but fleet-footed and has plenty of big-play ability (he had 56 catches for 1,400 yards and 17 scores back in 2019). Even if we don’t see a ton of him this year, the future with him eventually plugged in is an exciting one.” Orangefizz is in love with him: “Hatcher is the future at “z,” the boundary receiver. He’s primarily split out there even at the high school level. He does his best work when he has space to use and as the boundary receiver he has it. He is a very fluid route runner and sells his fakes well. At 6-3, he’s also a guy that can go up and get it and as the “z” he needs to be able to do that at the college level. He has incredible acceleration and straight line speed. He’s often used in the screen game and does a great job changing speeds once the blocks are set up and once he hits that top gear, he’s very difficult to catch. Going back to the route running, his footwork is incredible. A lot of wideout prospects tend to get open at the high school level with pure speed and acceleration. Hatcher can get open with speed as well, but what’s more impressive is the separation he gets on double moves and certain situations where it’s his agility that gets him open.”

This guy intrigues me even more than Alford and Gadsden. But he played in 4 games and never caught a pass. What I wonder is: if we continue with the ‘ground and pound’ attack, are we going to retain these guys so they can fulfill their potential their potential here: and cane we recruit more guys like him in the future?

A late edition was Cooper, a college football vagabond who landed here after stints at Arizona and UTEP. Thanks to a medical redshirt, a redshirt, (under the flabby new rules), and the Covid extension he still has two years of eligibility left, which would make for a seven-year career: He’s caught 41 passes for 678 yards, an impressive 16.5 average but only 1TD. He’s 5-11, 175, not the sort of big, muscular guy we seem to be going for but a player with considerable experience at this level

He had a decent year with 21 catches for 199 yards and, of course, no scores. But I would assume that he’s run out of eligibility, even by the standards of this era.

Mahar, Mang, Morris and Weaver already are tight ends. Mahar is similar in size to Benson. “As a senior, totaled 20 receptions for 340 yards (17.0 avg.) and four touchdowns” (Cuse.com), suggesting he might have a similar game. Phil Steele rated him the #51 tight end prospect and 247 had him as #36. But last year he just played on special teams. Nunes: “If Syracuse can get use two tight ends at all, having Mahar and Luke Benson out there could create a lot of mismatches. A lot probably depends on how much the offensive line is improved, though. If it isn’t, you’ll see a lot more Chris Elmore as a blocker. If it is, prepare to see more Mahar given his good mix of size and speed

Steve Mahar played in 10 games but never caught a pass. I think he was mostly on special teams. Who knows what t he future holds?

Mang was the other tight end recruit last year. He’s one of two players who came here from Germany, (the other being OL Mark Petry), which is why Steele doesn’t give him a rating, although ESPN had him as the #70 ‘Y-Tight End’, which means he’s more of a blocker than a receiver and 247 finally rated him as the #138 right end overall. He’s now 6-7 265, so he’s closer to the size of an interior lineman and that might even be his future. His highlights:

He'd make a tall target but he was used in the same manner as Chris Elmore, (who apparently will be back next year himself).

Morris is a big target at 6-6 230 and put up some gaudy numbers in high school: 81 career catches for 1,456 yards and 13 touchdowns. He was a wide-out there. Steele has him at #68, 24/7 #80. Nunes: “He’ll need to learn the blocking schemes to play, but his explosive offensive style can eventually see him on the field. That is, if Gilbert wants to actually throw to the tight ends…Morris is already on campus and appears to be yet another massive body that ‘Cuse can toss out there at the tight end spot. Perhaps this all seems overly optimistic given SU’s lack of tight end usage of late, but... having this many huge targets should theoretically fix short yardage and red zone woes after years of struggle.”

Morris saw the writing on the wall and hit the transfer portal before the season even began, saying that “his role since arriving this spring didn't align with SU's recruiting pitch.”

Seeing Benson with Mahar and Morris right behind him, I’m wondering if throw to the tight end might become a bigger part of our offense in the future, especially in the red zone.

Nope.
 

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