2021 Syracuse Football Positional Preview: Wide Receivers
Fall 2020 was not a fun season to be a pass catcher in orange and blue. Syracuse’s wide receivers struggled to get open all year, only finding the end zone 11 times in as many games. Furthermore, just three wideouts contributed to S.U.’s touchdown tally, while several others never reached paydirt.
However, the Orange expect to have far greater stability at the quarterback position this year. Starter Tommy DeVito is returning from season-ending a leg injury which he suffered in an early season loss to Duke last year. Now, the redshirt senior is set to pick up where he left off with a familiar supporting cast.
The only significant target missing in 2021 will be Nykeim Johnson. With the former slot receiver graduating, the door is wide open for a host of youngsters to step up. The good news for Syracuse: 11 receivers on roster have at least a year under their belt with the offense. Now the questions turn to the mainstays, and who is ultimately going to make that leap to help turn things around in the Orange aerial attack.
Taj Harris, Senior
There’s no doubt about Taj Harris. The 6’2” senior led the team in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns last year, and was Syracuse’s only All-ACC player on offense, having earned third team honors for his efforts.
The New Jersey native has it all. Reliable hands, crisp routes, and explosive speed. Time and time again, Syracuse fans got to see Harris take the top off defenses in 2020. He’s also a go-to passing option on screen plays and third downs.
His junior year was easily his most successful at the NCAA level. The average length of his 5 touchdowns was nearly 45 yards a season ago, with the longest being a 79-yard sideline burner against the Blue Devils, before DeVito’s injury.
Harris’s penultimate season in orange wasn’t perfect, though. He made a few costly errors, including dropping a pass from JaCobian Morgan that instead fell into the hands of Louisville’s Kei-Trel Clark for a pick. That came early in the second quarter when the ‘Cuse were down 3-0 with a chance to gain momentum, in a game the Cards ran away with 30-0.
Nevertheless, Harris’s experience sets him up to improve even more. He will be aiming to surpass his season-high 733 yards from last year, and should be expecting a lot of targets in the passing game.
Anthony Queeley, Redshirt Junior
Another 6’2” target who had some success as a No. 2 receiver in 2020. Queeley began his career as a reserve special teamer but saw his playing time increase dramatically following the departure of Trishton Jackson.
Whereas Taj Harris is known for being a deep threat, Queeley thrives as more of a possession receiver. While the two are the same height, Queeley adds another 25 lbs to his frame, weighing in at 205. He excels at boxing out defenders and high pointing the football, as he did against Notre Dame in Syracuse’s season finale. Twice on the same drive, Queeley was the target on a curl route. Both times, he “attacked” the ball rather than waiting for it to arrive, preventing his defender from making a play. The second time, he shook off a tackler for an 18-yard TD.
His 37 receptions, 378 yards, and two touchdowns were all second among all Orange receivers last year. And he appears to be the favorite to line up opposite Harris.
Umari Hatcher, Freshman
One of three wideouts recruited by S.U. in the Class of ’21, and the highest ranked by 247Sports. 6’3”, 170 lbs. out of Freedom High School in Woodbridge, VA. A traditional outside receiver, Hatcher excelled at creating separation off the line as a high schooler.
His senior season was postponed due to the pandemic, however he racked up 1,400 yards on 56 catches for 17 scores in 2019 as a junior. Hatcher also showcased impressive abilities after the catch, and believes he’ll smoothly adjust to the collegiate environment.
Look for Hatcher to possibly develop into a future No. 1 receiver for S.U.
Sharod Johnson, Redshirt Senior
Johnson has been primarily a reserve wide receiver/special teamer during his three-year playing career at Syracuse. He has 12 total catches for 138 yards and is still in search of his first score.
As a junior, he mainly saw action late in games, most notably against Wake Forest, where he caught two passes for 34 yards, including a 31-yard reception, the longest of his college career.
With Nykeim Johnson’s absence, 2021 could be Sharod Johnson’s window of opportunity to make a bigger impact.
Ethan Fischler, Redshirt Junior
Fischler has been with the squad since his redshirt season in 2018 but didn’t see his first playing time until 2020. He suited up as a reserve against Notre Dame but failed to make an impact.
In high school, he played both football and basketball for the Miramonte Matadors in Orinda, CA, just outside of San Francisco.
He’ll likely remain toward the bottom of the depth chart for additional season or make his way onto the special teams unit.
Kendall Long, Freshman
The second of the Orange wide receiver recruits, and a Top-20 ranked prospect in South Carolina. There, he was a First Team All-Region selection and even considered an SI All-American candidate.
Whereas Fischler was a dual-sport athlete in high school, Long competed in football, basketball, and track and field. In the latter sport, he was a stellar long jumper and sprinter.
Combined with his athleticism, Long’s 6’2”, 210 lb. frame gives him the potential to develop into a significant red zone and deep threat down the road.
Trebor Pena, Sophomore
Pena is listed as a wide receiver, but he is primarily a kick returner. As a freshman, he ran one 98 yards to the house against NC State in front of empty stands. He also saw some action as a backup running back, but his quickness certainly makes him a viable option for no-huddle situations, or third-and-longs in long-distance field goal range.
Isaiah Jones, Junior
Predominantly a special teams player, but standing at 6’4”, he is the tallest receiver we’ve covered thus far. Jones played his freshman ball at El Camino College before transferring to the Salt City thereafter. He also was a basketball standout in high school before fully committing to football.
It is noteworthy that Syracuse’s red zone percentage was tied with Georgia Tech for the ACC’s worst in 2020. If Jones progresses this year, perhaps Dino Babers will call his number more in that part of the field.
Damien Alford, Sophomore
While we’re on the note of size, let’s talk about Damien Alford. He is the tallest receiver the Orange have this year, standing at a massive 6’6”. Whereas Jones joined the program as a special teamer, Alford spent his freshman year as a designated reserve wide receiver, meaning he has a chance to ascend the depth chart this year.
He only tallied one catch in 2020, but the Montreal native has a huge physical edge over his competition. With Taj Harris and Queeley strong up top, it is difficult to assess how much he will feature this year. Could 2022 be his breakout opportunity?
Sam Warren, Redshirt Sophomore
Warren plays slot receiver, however, he has yet to see any playing time in a Syracuse uniform. He played QB, safety, and receiver in high school, so he has plenty of raw versatility. It’s unlikely he’ll be making a very big splash this season, though.
Nate Wellington, Redshirt Sophomore
A Skaneateles native who was a staple of the Lakers’ 2019 NYSPHSAA Section III State Title campaign. Like Warren, he’s a young 5’10” slot receiver with not much else to go by than his high school background, since he’s yet to earn playing time at the college level.
Courtney Jackson, Redshirt Sophomore
After redshirting in 2019, Johnson saw sparse playing time in 2020. He managed to compile 10 catches for 69 yards in his 11 games of action, albeit on a season where, again, the quarterback situation was on very shaky ground.
Jackson is a candidate to watch for that heralded slot role. He’s smaller and more elusive than Queeley, and his route running looks solid. This year, he will undoubtedly see increased playing time and targets. His hands aren’t the greatest, but with more experience that will come.
Ja’Vontae Williams, Sophomore
Nicknamed, “Tank,” Williams is another candidate to watch for increased playing time. Not necessarily a starting role just yet, but he has made a couple acrobatic catches in early season practices this year.
Williams is another one of many players without any stats on record as an NCAA athlete. But as they say, the real work is done in practice. And if the image above shows anything, Ja’Vontae Williams has been putting in that work.
Oronde Gadsden II, Freshman
Finally, we round out the wide receiver corps with the third freshman recruit in the Class of ’21. Gadsden stands at 6’5” and is the tallest of the incoming wideouts. He won two state championships with American Heritage High School in Fort Lauderdale, and his father played with the Miami Dolphins in the NFL.
Gadsden, like Hatcher and Long, has all the raw makings of a true outside receiver, something the Orange are used to having at least one of. Hatcher’s release, Long’s elusiveness, and now Gadsden’s 6’5” stature all provide for an ideal trio once they’ve each hit their senior year. For now, it seems like the Orange still have lots of raw talent to work with. Nothing is yet set in stone for this offense. But as we’ve seen, this peanut gallery certainly offers plenty potential solutions to the dilemma of offensive success.