The 2016 season was supposed to be a big coming-out party for Steve Ishmael. The talented wideout with good size, at about 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, and exceptional hands seemed to be the most likely beneficiary of the Dino Babers offense. After all, here was a guy who had been the top receiver in an admittedly mediocre (at best) passing offense, getting thrust into one of the most wide receiver-friendly offenses in the nation.
And… well, the season didn’t exactly go the way a lot of folks may have anticipated. Ishmael was by no means bad; he had a career high 48 catches (up from 39 the previous season), but his yards went down, and he caught only one touchdown. Granted, Amba Etta-Tawo burst onto the scene, hauling in 94 catches and breaking virtually every single season receiving record in Syracuse history.
There was also Ervin Philips, who caught 90 passes, while Brisly Estime tied with Ishmael for third on the team with 48 catches. But with 24 receiving touchdowns spread across the team last year, it seemed kind of remarkable (in a not-so-great way) that the always reliable Ishmael hauled in just one of them. As a sophomore, he’d caught seven touchdowns. Even as a freshman, three of his 27 receptions went for scores. And his 11.6 yards-per-catch average was easily the lowest of his career (14.6 as a sophomore and 15.4 as a freshman).
And maybe that lack of standout production last year is exactly why it feels like Ishmael – the guy everyone anticipated would be The Man last season – seems to have fallen off the radar and become the forgotten man in the offense.
Another way to put it: maybe we overrated Ishmael so much last season that, when he failed to meet our extremely lofty expectations, we went all the way around and are now completely undervaluing him. Etta-Tawo and Estime are gone, after all. Philips returns, and will be eyeing the first 100-catch season in Syracuse history. Ravian Pierce joins the fold, and will no doubt get his fair share of receptions. Devin Butler has the size (6-foot-3) and speed (don’t forget, he was a sprinter in high school) to emerge as a true sophomore, and there’s always Jamal Custis looming on the outside, hoping his production can catch up to his massive, athletic frame (6-foot-6 with a basketball background, making him a perfect redzone target).
But it feels like we’re beginning to sleep on Ishmael as he enters his senior season. No, he doesn’t have the speed to be a consistent deep threat like Etta-Tawo, and he doesn’t have the quickness of Philips to turn short receptions into big gains, but Ishmael has been Mr. Reliable since arriving on campus. If you need a receiver to make a tough catch, Steve Ishmael is your guy on this Syracuse roster.
While he may never hit the marks many (including me) projected last season, it’s not unrealistic to see Ishmael pulling in 75+ receptions and flirting with 1,000 receiving yards this season. Year two under Babers has seen major boosts in offensive production basically across the board at each of his first two stops, and with a healthy Eric Dungey behind center, having now pretty well mastered the fast paced, pass-happy offense, we can expect to see the same in 2017.
And it stands to reason that Steve Ishmael, the terrific senior-to-be we have come to take for granted, will be one of the catalysts.