Syracuse could be in for another tough game Saturday, against another ranked ACC opponent. While Pittsburgh seems to be trending in the right direction of the past couple of seasons, Syracuse is sliding backward.
Similar to last year, there’s no simple fix to the Orange offense. Yes Tommy DeVito is bad. Yes the offensive line is atrocious, and gave up nine sacks to Pitt a year ago. And SU is now down to its former third string running back – Jawhar Jordan – being thrust into the starting role. At wide receiver, Taj Harris has proven himself a capable No. 2 in the past couple of seasons. This year, he’s tasked with elevating to the primary pass catcher role for Syracuse. Only time will tell if he’s successful.
The one position group that is talented – and was underused against UNC – are the tight ends. Against the Tar Heels, Aaron Hackett and Luke Benson combined for two targets. While Harris gives DeVito a threat to the sideline, he needs playmakers over the middle.
He seems to have them in his tight ends, which makes it more shocking that he rarely looked their way. Last season, Hackett was DeVito’s go-to red zone target. After catching a touchdown on over 25% of his receptions last year, DeVito targeted Hackett just once last week. SU made it inside UNC’s 25 yard line on three different occasions but never found the end zone.
Benson is a talented 6-foot-3 sophomore that was named a third-team freshman All-American by Pro Football Focus last year. While his stats weren’t eye popping, he finished with three touchdowns on just eight catches.
Of DeVito’s 19 touchdown passes last season, nine of them were to his tight ends. And while SU’s offense was poor last year, DeVito had more weapons. Now, he’s without his top receiver Trishton Jackson – who’s now with the Los Angeles Rams. Last season, Jackson was on the receiving end of 11 touchdown passes. DeVito also lost his top three running backs. There’s a lot of production lost last season, and it’s strange DeVito didn’t rely on reliable targets.
The quarterback is still dealing with an offensive line that doesn’t give him much time to throw. That could force head coach Dino Babers to use his tight ends to block. But he could also adjust the offense, to implement quick passes.
Babers did that to some extent against UNC. But DeVito targeted his receivers on those quick routes. Instead, SU should consider playcalls where the tight ends are able to pick up chunk gains of five to ten yards. Quick passes over the middle could force the defense to adjust its strategy. Instead of bringing linebackers in to blitz, which Pitt loves to do, they’d have to sit in coverage.
Once Syracuse reached the red zone, DeVito knew where to look last year. This season, he needs to continue to find Hackett and Benson, not just in the red zone, but anywhere on the field.