Syracuse football’s 2023 WRs: Is SU’s best receiver (not named Oronde Gadsden) returning from injury?

Syracuse, N.Y. — Last year, Syracuse football wide receivers coach Michael Johnson told head coach Dino Babers who the best wide receiver in the room was: Isaiah Jones.
At the time, Jones hadn’t caught a pass for the Orange. He’d appeared in just 14 games over two seasons, primarily on special teams. Maybe he’d had a flashy catch or two in spring ball.
“We lost a lot of cats in those first six games, but he was probably the one that really affected the offense a lot,” Babers said this spring. “ ‘Cause at the time we thought he was our best wide receiver. Now, we’ll see.”
Jones, who’s entering his fifth season of college football and fourth with SU, adds another weapon to an already well-stacked pass-catching corp as the Orange looks poised to rely more heavily on an aerial offense than it has the past two seasons.
Syracuse’s receiver room will include the following: Jones, Damien Alford, Trebor Pena, Umari Hatcher, D’Marcus Adams, Kendall Long, Donovan Brown, true freshmen Bryce Cohoon, Darrell Gill Jr. and walk-ons Kyle Acker, Nate Wellington and Nick Armentano.
Alford nearly left this offseason, briefly entering the transfer portal in early January before deciding to stay at Syracuse. He would not say why he entered the portal during spring camp, saying only it was for personal reasons.
Then there’s Oronde Gadsden, who the team rosters as a tight end but who usually lines up in the slot wide receiver spot and led the team in receiving last season.
SU wide receiver Damien Alford during spring practice on April 4. Alford is one of the top returning wide receivers for Syracuse this fall. Dennis Nett |
Last season, the team’s top five receivers by targets, receptions, reception percentage and average yards per reception were all the same, according to Pro Football Focus: Gadsden, running back Sean Tucker, Devaughn Cooper, Alford and Pena.
Though the order among the five changes in each category, they were definitively at the top of the pack in SU’s receiving game. The Orange lost both Tucker and Cooper from that group.
Gadsden has the overall highest offensive grade (82.2%) according to PFF, while Adams posted the highest (71.6%) among just those players labeled as wide receivers.
In its third year with quarterback Garrett Shrader and second with now-offensive coordinator Jason Beck on staff, Syracuse projects to see a lot of action through the air.
SU went from an average 158.2 passing yards per game in 2021 to 232.2 YPG last season. Though it had two fewer passing touchdowns than rushing ones, 52% of the team’s 264 first downs were achieved through the air.
Gadsden accounted for 969 of SU’s receiving yards last year as he emerged as a star talent. By the midpoint of the season, Syracuse’s element of surprise with Gadsden had already diminished — he started being double-teamed in Game 7 against Clemson — and he’s no longer a secret weapon this fall.
The Orange will need to find a definitive No. 2, and potentially No. 3 receiver in 2023, something it did not achieve last season despite being a goal of coach Dino Babers’.
Jones and Alford are the strongest options, with Adams as a wildcard, but even they will have to prove themselves quickly in the opening weeks of the season. Purdue, the Orange’s Week 3 opponent, knows what it’s like to be burned by Gadsden.
Jones had four receptions for 60 yards and a touchdown for SU in the three games he played last season before his injury. They were his first at the Power Five level after transferring from a community college following the 2019 season.
Alford didn’t pick up as a receiving target until late last year, posting a season-high four receptions for 83 yards and one touchdown in the regular-season finale against Boston College. He finished the year with 20 catches for 429 yards. More than half came in the final six games of the season, including SU’s bowl loss to Minnesota.
Adams had far fewer receptions (six) than Alford, but four of them were for 30-plus yards, putting him at a total 180 yards on the season. It was his first season with Syracuse after transferring from Florida Atlantic University.
Pena will likely remain a valuable short-yardage target as opposed to taking on a larger role in the downfield passing game. He never posted more than 43 yards in a game last year or more than four receptions in a game. However, he has the highest reception percentage among SU’s returners by 15.9%, per PFF.
One wrench in establishing the No. 2 receiver, though, is Shrader’s absence from spring camp and likely limited participation in summer activities. What chemistry could have been created over the past six months will now be fast-tracked through a four-week fall camp period.
But if comments from Carlos Del Rio-Wilson, Shrader’s backup who co-helmed the offense this spring, are any indication of how easy this group of receivers is to work and build with, things should be in good shape.
“I wouldn’t say one or two,” Del Rio-Wilson said when asked which receiver he was clicking with in the spring. “It’s the whole receiving corp for real.”

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