The first breakout star of Dino Babers’ offense at Syracuse lasted just a year. Amba Etta-Tawo was a transfer from Maryland who’d caught just 20 passes as a junior but blossomed into one of the most prolific receivers in the country after joining the Orange. He arrived as an afterthought and departs with legitimate NFL potential.
The downside, of course, is that Syracuse now needs to replace all that production -- 94 catches to go with an ACC best 1,482 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The upside is, Etta-Tawo offered a sneak peek into what Babers’ offense can do for a receiver, and the Orange don’t seem too worried about finding the next superstar. In fact, they’re fairly certain there’s more than one already on the roster.
“We want to get to the point where we have multiple receivers at 1,000 yards,” senior Steve Ishmael said. “If everybody’s on their job, everybody’s going to eat in this offense.”
That mindset is all about Babers’ influence. On one hand, he’s not big on tipping his hand too early. Players know better than to reveal too much too soon, so don’t expect gushing over any burgeoning star. Etta-Tawo remained a virtually unknown commodity last year until Week 1, when he caught 12 balls for 210 yards in his Syracuse debut.
But it’s also about the potential Babers’ offense offers his receivers. While Etta-Tawo captured the bulk of the spotlight, three other receivers topped 500 yards, too, putting the Orange alongside Clemson and Louisville as the only ACC teams with four 500-yard receivers. Syracuse accomplished the feat in just 12 games, with a backup QB playing a significant percentage of those.
So as spring practice kicks off and the question of replacing Etta-Tawo is posed again and again, it’s easy enough to be confident Syracuse already has at least one good answer.
“They have that mindset, and I have the same expectations for them,” quarterback Eric Dungey said. “We have great receivers across the board and some young guys coming in. I’m excited to work with them.”
The list beyond Ishmael and fellow senior Ervin Philips isn’t exactly an accomplished one. Moe Neal moves from running back to the slot. Jamal Custis (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) and Adly Enoicy (6-5, 227) offer imposing physical skills, but have just six career catches between them. Tight end Ravian Pierce has already earned raves from his offseason work, but Syracuse tight ends caught just six passes total last year.
But, of course, the same might’ve been said this time last year, when the Orange arrived at camp completely new to Babers’ up-tempo style and without a true star among the receivers. The results were impressive enough, and Etta-Tawo blazed the path that Babers insists plenty of others will soon follow.
So what if there’s no clear answer today? There’s clearly progress from a year ago, and Dungey has options to throw to, so it’s more likely only a matter of time before the next Etta-Tawo emerges.
“Every time you go into something the first time, it’s a little shaky,” Ishmael said. “Building the foundation is key. We’ve been practicing on it, and the more reps we get, the more we get used to the system, and it’s really clicking on all cylinders right now. Everything is in us now, and we’re just moving.”