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Syracuse Football: Will 2015 Finally Be the Year Effective Punt Returns... Return?

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Taking a look at one major issue for Syracuse football going on more than a decade now...

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse Orange special teams have been.. .less-than-special in recent years. A decade, really, when you think about it.

And while we'll get to previewing the entire 2015 special teams unit next week, it's worth digging into one topic a bit further beforehand: the issue of punt returns.

Syracuse hasn't returned a punt for a touchdown since 2004 (Anthony Smith), and Smith was really more of a great defender and expert special teams guy who just had a nose for the ball. He returned occasionally, but he was more your guy on blocks than anything else. It's how he and Steve Gregory made a living back then.

Oh, Steve Gregory? You know him. He's our newly-minted Special Team Quality Control Coach. Are you getting the same very positive feeling I am?

Gregory played for the Orangemen/Orange from 2002 to 2005, and in his time on the roster, Syracuse returned SIX (!!!!) punts for touchdowns. While Smith had the most recent return, Marcus Clayton was the team's most recent, legitimate "punt returner," gaining 273 yards and a TD on 27 chances in 2003. Since then, and especially since Gregory left for the NFL after 2005? Well...

2014: 20 returns, 8.35 average/Top: Brisly Estime (6/58/0)

2013: 33 returns, 7.82 average/Top: Brisly Estime (4/126/0)

2012: 29 returns, 4.1 average/Top: Ritchy Desir (20/105/0)

2011: 12 returns, 3.08 average/Top: Steve Rene (10/22/0)

2010: 32 returns, 9.19 average/Top: Mike Holmes (28/289/0)

2009: 21 returns, 6.91 average/Top: Donte Davis (15/104/0)

2008: 11 returns, 4.45 average/Top: Dorian Graham (1/23/0)

2007: 10 returns, 4.6 average/Top: Ryan Howard (3/32/0)

2006: 21 returns, 7.67 average/Top: Max Meisel (13/103/0)

... Ouch. Again: No TDs. No legitimate return threat, and overall, very little team success in this department, since there are just two seasons with an average greater than eight yards per return above. And four seasons under five yards per. In Gregory's four years, Syracuse had three seasons of nine yards per punt return or better -- including marks of 11.2 (2003) and 13.5 (2002) that completely obliterate the numbers from 2006-2014.

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So what of this year? And what change might Gregory be able to affect now that someone's actually in charge of special teams again? Well, for one, he'll likely bring with him the type of aggressive strategies that help set up blocked returns back in his day, while also putting the right players in position to actually run the ball back too. The one player you can count on being included in that group is Brisly Estime. Everyone else? Well, there's a list...

Syracuse.com shared some quick notes on punt returns yesterday and while advanced drillwork didn't appear to go well, the team is testing a lot of guys out to see what sticks. Along with Estime, Steve Ishmael, Dontae Strickland, Jordan Fredericks, Antwan Cordy, Ervin Philips, Rodney Williams and walk-on Jacob Hill all took some reps. This is a stark contrast to previous strategies that simply handed the gig to Estime and Ritchy Desir -- despite one of those players (:COUGH: BRISLY! :COUGH:) being much better at the role.

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Will Gregory fix what's ailed Syracuse's punt return unit for upwards of a decade? It's early, but there's at least some sort of promise to his own experience, no? At the very least, it can't hurt getting this element of the game (an important one, by the way, if you're playing the field position game) back on track following a long hiatus.