The Syracuse Orange wrap up its spring practice tomorrow afternoon, when Scott Shafer's team will play the annual spring game. But before that happens, we're continuing our preview for the 2015 season. Today's topic:
Can the Orange improve on special teams?
Who's no longer at Syracuse?
SU isn't losing many key special teams players from the 2014 group. Prince-Tyson Gulley, who spent time towards the end of the season returning kicks and punts, is gone. So is Ritchy Desir, who returned 48 punts in four years with Syracuse.
Long snapper Sam Rodgers, who played in all 12 games in 2014, accounts for the only other departure.
Who's still on campus?
Pretty much everyone that was last season. The Orange get back Ervin Philips and Brisly Estime, the team's primary kick and punt returners, respectively. Also returning for Syracuse are 2014 Heisman snub punter Riley Dixon, kicker/Bud Light tallboy aficionado Ryan Norton, kicker Cole Murphy, long snapper Nathan Hines, and long snapper Keith Mitsuuchi.
Neither Hines nor Mitsuuchi saw the field in 2014, but with Rodgers' departure, it's possible we'll see more of one of them. As for the kickers, Cole Murphy appeared in all 12 games last season, ultimately earning the full-time role, while Norton appeared in just five. Murphy was a preferred walk-on in 2014, but it's tough to imagine he won't be on scholarship in 2015.
Who's arriving this summer?
Who are the likely starters coming out of spring?
Philips and Estime are likely to serve as Syracuse's kick and punt returners once again in 2015. Riley Dixon is the only punter on the roster, and you'd have to imagine Murphy keeps his starting kicking job. Only the long snapper position is surrounded by uncertainty, thanks to Rodgers no longer being around. Keller will battle it out with Hines, a walk-on sophomore, and Mitsuuchi, a walk-on redshirt junior.
What's changing in comparison to last season?
Syracuse can only hope that its special teams units garner better results in 2015. Last season, the Orange ranked 119th in average kickoff return yards and 120th in punt return defense. SU was slightly better in kick return defense (44th) and in average punt return yardage (54th), but it's no secret that the team struggled on special teams last season (Ed note: and the MANY seasons before).
Murphy, who made two 50-yard field goals last season, is reliable as a kicker. But after him, Syracuse has work to do.
Who's the "player to watch" coming out of spring ball?
This is a tough question to answer. We'll go with Dixon, because why the hell not? Even if he doesn't throw any game-winning touchdown passes in 2015, he could be an x-factor for a Syracuse team that, as noted above, had its fair share of issues on its punt return defense.
What do you think? How "special" are Orange special teams going to be this year? Add in your own two-cents below.