2017 Spring Football Guide

Syracuse’s wide receivers group are without one of the best in the nation, but they don’t feel any less ready

Ally Moreo | Photo Editor

Steve Ishmael will be stepping up as the No. 1 wide receiver on the outside for Syracuse, the spot that Amba Etta-Tawo held last season.

Most of Syracuse’s players walked off the field as their 10th spring practice ended. The defensive players headed straight out of Ensley Athletic Center, while a few of the offensive players lingered.

The wide receivers didn’t join the group heading off. Instead, senior Ervin Philips played cornerback against running back convert Moe Neal. Steve Ishmael and Devin Butler lined up by the JUGS machine and took turns catching some extra passes, alternating sides as they went along.

“Those wide receivers,” someone quipped. “They’re always the last ones to get here.”

The unit is missing a major piece from last year’s team with the departure of Amba Etta-Tawo, who had the second-most receiving yards (1,482) and fourth-most touchdowns (14) among Power 5 receivers. Even without its first Associated Press All-American since 2001, Syracuse’s coaches and players remain confident in the group’s ability to produce.

“We may not have one guy as dynamic as Amba,” head coach Dino Babers said March 28 after the fourth spring practice, “but I think overall it will be a better receiving group from top to bottom.”

SU returns two of its most-used receivers in Ishmael, who was the No. 2 receiver on the outside a year ago, and Philips, the lead inside receiver. The current depth chart has redshirt junior Jamal Custis in Ishmael’s spot from a year ago. Custis missed all of last season with an injury, but in his first two years, he amassed five receptions.

Babers’ system, specifically from a passing perspective, directly contrasts from Scott Shafer’s. In Babers’ first year, the Orange had 332 receptions, whereas two years ago it had 164. Last year, redshirt senior Alvin Cornelius replaced a banged-up Ishmael. He had seven receptions over the three games he played a majority of the snaps for. His seven receptions were more than he had in 2015.

Custis’ 6-foot-5 frame gives him unmatched size on the outside — it’s just a matter of whether he can capitalize. He’s had a full year to observe how his teammates handled the new system, but he has needed reps to get used to it.

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Ally Moreo | Photo Editor

“It’s better to actually do it than just reading and trying to learn the plays like that,” Custis said. “… It was a little tough just trying to read it out the book and remember it, but once I started getting back, it started coming back.”

Behind Custis is sophomore Devin Butler. Butler appeared in just five games after wrestling with some injuries throughout the season. Even when he was active, his time on the field was very limited as he learned the new system. But his athletic background — he was a sprinter in high school — makes him an interesting prospect on the outside.

Babers’ system also frequently featured four wide receiver sets, so Etta-Tawo isn’t the only regular SU will have to replace. The other inside receiver, Brisly Estime, is also gone. Currently, sophomore Sean Riley is listed in his place on the depth chart.

At 5-foot-8, 150 pounds, Riley relies mostly on his speed to make plays. That made him one of the primary kick returners for the Orange last year. He struggled securing kicks (Cuse.com does not track individual fumbles), but the sophomore has impressed this spring.

“Sean Riley has definitely stepped up,” Philips said. “… he’s a guy who didn’t get many reps last year, so he’s catching up, but he’s been doing some good things.”

Behind Riley figures to be Neal, though it’s unclear exactly what his role in the offense will be. As a running back last year he had 68 carries and caught only two passes.

Throughout the spring, he has flashed some positional versatility. He began many practices with the other wide receivers on routine pass and catching drills. In later practices, when the running backs caught balls out of the backfield, Neal worked with them. Babers even joked he may be on the defense at some point this year.

More freshmen will join the Orange at the start of training camp in the summer. And while Ishmael’s and Philips’ roles on the team are probably safe, the rest of the core is developing behind them. The group is ready to collectively replace the record-setting Etta-Tawo.

“We’re going to be a lot more disciplined in that group,” Babers said. “Overall, I think we’re going to be better.”

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