The wide receiver position is one of the deepest on the Syracuse roster this season. It has a strong mix of youthful talent and veteran experience. It is also, however, coming off of a season where the group’s productivity was below par.
Entering the 2014 campaign, the receiving corps was one of the more intriguing positions to watch as the Orange look for playmakers to help take the offense to the next level. While some of that may depend on past contributors continuing to develop, a spark may come from one of the newcomers.
True freshman Steve Ishmael, a coveted recruit from the talent rich state of Florida, started in his first college game for Syracuse.
”It came from the sideline,” Ishmael said. “They said, ‘Steve you go out there first and then you’ll rotate in with J-West.’ He just said we would have a good rotation going in. That’s when I knew I was going to play. It was, I wouldn’t say emotional, but I was proud of myself.
”Most people don’t get to come in and play as a freshman. It was a blessing to be able to come in and play for a great school like this.”
The former North Miami Beach High standout played more than 20-snaps in his first action at the college level. Starting and playing that big of a role in the offense was not something Ishmael anticipated right off the bat.
”I didn’t expect to get in that much,” he said. “But I think it’s only going to get higher from here. I think I might be in there a little bit more. Like I said it’s just a great experience and I’m just humble and thank the Lord for everything.”
Ishmael finished his first game with two catches for 13-yards. Not a breakout performance by any means, but just enough to get the true freshman’s feet wet.
”I played alright,” Ishmael said. “I wouldn’t say I played great because I just came fresh out of high school and I finally learned the speed of the college game is different. It’s much faster. People are bigger.
”You have to play to everybody’s speed. You have to come off the ball faster. Get open on your routes. Do a lot of technique stuff. Technique is real key in college. That’s what I’ve learned.”
Another big adjustment to the college level, besides the increased size and speed, is the responsibilities of the receivers. In high school, Ishmael was not asked to block very often. At Syracuse, where the ground attack is a vital part of the offense, the Orange wide receivers put a big premium on their ability to block downfield.
”We’re emphasizing that more in practice,” Ishmael said. “There’s a lot more blocking in college. Especially going against bigger guys. I’m in the weight room every day just trying to get bigger for situations like that. Handling guys and forcing them where I want them to go. I feel like I’ll be more comfortable throughout the season because I’m in the weight room more.”
The upside for the true freshman is through the roof. In order to make the most of his immense natural talent, he is working hard on becoming the game breaker that Syracuse so desperately needs.
”I’m focusing on coming off the ball and making big plays,” Ishmael said. “Helping my team put up more points and getting a lot more first downs. Just making more catches and making big plays because my goal is that I want to be the best. I can’t be the best if I don’t work hard and make plays. I’m looking forward to coming out there and making plays throughout the rest of the season.”
While he works on his technique and developing his game, Ishmael also works on his chemistry with starting quarterback Terrel Hunt. That relationship will be critical over the next two seasons.
”Terrel Hunt is great,” Ishmael said. “He was just talking to me. He said I’m a freshman but he expects more from me. He gives me plays and he expects me to know it. Our relationship is there. We’re just getting better from here on out.”
Hunt believes in Ishmael so much, he is trying his best to reduce the freshman learning curve for the talented wideout. In fact, Ishmael said Hunt will often quiz him on his assignment during certain play calls or where he is supposed to line up in different formations.
This happens both during practice and off the field when the two may cross paths in the hallway or during team meetings. Ishmael’s ability to learn the playbook quickly is one of the reasons why he has been able to rise to the top of the depth chart as he prepares for just his second career game.
”I’m just staying level,” Ishmael said. “At the end of the day, J-West is a senior. Me and J-West are going to play no matter what. I’m going to come in for him and he’s going to come in sometimes. It’s not like anyone’s really in front of anyone because we’re rotating in all the time.”
While the long-term future for Ishmael is certainly bright, he is focused, for now, on the next game. That is a road test at Central Michigan on Saturday.
”They’re secondary is very physical,” Ishmael said. “They’re a fast paced defense. As a receiver, I have to come off the ball a lot faster. They’re a good team. I like what we have going into this game as a unit and as an offense.
"We have to try to put up some points and make some big plays especially with the great play calling that coach McDonald is doing. We have a whole bunch of new and great plays. At the end of the day, the game is going to come down to execution.”