The Syracuse football season is almost here. In the lead-up to kickoff, we’re previewing every position group on this year's Syracuse squad, making sure you’ll fully prepared for September 4 (NEXT FRIDAY!). Today, we take a look at the…
Syracuse Orange Special Teams
Special teams has been a difficult topic for Syracuse fans in recent seasons. No matter what time of year, if you mention the Orange's larger special teams unit, you're met with questions instead of answers. April 2015: Can Syracuse special teams improve? October 2014: Special teams continue to struggle. The list could continue... But now that SU's hired former player Steve Gregory as the Special Teams Quality Control Coach, perhaps things are finally going to turn around (or start to).
Cole Murphy, Sophomore
In his first season on the roster, Murphy managed to not only make the Orange roster, but seize the starting placekicker job while making 13 of 16 field goals and even getting a nod as a Lou Groza Award semifinalist. Now in year two, he's the unquestioned top kicker, and even a scholarship player too. His booming leg will hopefully get more of a workout on extra points than it did last year, when he only attempted 12 PATs in total. More settled in his position on kickoffs too, there may be an uptick in touchbacks as well.
Ryan Norton, Senior
For a kicker, Norton's had a fairly troubled career at Syracuse. He's still on the roster and still on scholarship, but considering how promising his career was at the start (great on kickoff duty in 2012, 10-for-15 on FGs in 2013)... it's almost like he's not. We've had some fun with the "Bud Light Incident" over time, but it is truly stunning how quickly he fell out of favor. Given the lack of health for SU kickers recently, his number might be called again. Otherwise, he's finishing up on the sidelines.
Sterling Hofrichter, Freshman
Scholarship kicker no. 3 is the only one on the roster who could potentially steal the job from Murphy. But he's likely still a year out, at minimum. Could we end up redshirting a kicker to get more time out of a promising young leg? There haven't been any murmurs about it, but why not? Redshirting Hof gets us two years of him after Murphy, which... could end up setting this position up pretty well for five full seasons. If not, he'll get some quality time getting adjusted to college nonetheless and giving SU another solid option in case of injury.
Alex Hodgkinson, Senior
Hodgkinson won't see the field this year unless terrible things happen. And that's okay. He's got a lot of other awesome things going on when he's not practicing kicking field goals. Like selling sausage. Also, has Alex taken up the mantle of one ridiculously good-looking Charley Loeb? Only Sean can truly supply that verdict.
Riley Dixon, Senior
That's right. Punter. Singular. Because when your punter is a living legend, Heisman candidate and one of the best QBs on your roster, you don't need another one. Due to last year's putrid offense, Dixon made an assault on the Orange punting record books and almost assumed the top spot in several categories. Hopefully he won't have as many chances to punt this year, though if you need a game-winning TD or 40-yard run, he's still your man. You know which blog to thank for that bet you placed and won on him taking home the Heisman.
Matt Keller, Freshman
The top long-snapper in the recruiting class of 2015, Keller shows up and grabs the starting gig right off the bat. He's been on campus since January, so he's already pretty well adjusted to college life. Now we just have to see if he's adjusted to the college game come next Friday. Perhaps there are some growing pains here and there, but he should be an exciting addition to the unit who can grow into his role and be a four-year starter.
Keith Mitsuuchi, Senior
Just when Mitsuuchi was about to potentially step in as a starter, Keller grabs the role. Never say never on him seeing some playing time, but it's much more likely he plays a valuable role providing him and other freshmen with some on- and off-the-field guidance instead.
Nathan Hines, Sophomore
Nathan's another walk-on at the position, and another who can help the overall unit as well as assist Keller in adjusting to his new role. Unlikely Mitsuuchi, he has some additional time on campus too, so there's always the chance he finds some additional roles with the team long-term.
At least yet, anyway. Last year, Ervin Philips and Brisly Estime handled a lot of kick return and punt return duties, respectively. This year, either of them could be plugged in, along with Steve Ishmael, , Jordan Fredericks and a whole bunch of others too. The punt return game, in particular, has been a pain point for a decade, but as we've discussed in this space before: maybe not anymore. The key is Steve Gregory, who could really help turn things around for the group and get it back to the elite level it performed at when he used to suit up for SU. Even a small uptick in return yardage could have a big difference for the Orange offense by way of starting field position.
So yeah, for once, we're seemingly secured at most positions within the special teams unit. That feels pretty awesome, to be honest, especially considering that Dixon's pretty much a sure thing, and at kicker, we've got options for now and the future too, all of which seem like a lot more stability than we're really used to. Same goes for long-snapper. But can those solidified spots make up for the two big question marks where one of the Orange's biggest weaknesses has lied for quite some time?
Because of Gregory's arrival, I'm tempted to say yes. It's not as if we have no options there. Hell, we even have experienced players at both the punt and kick returner positions to utilize. Now we just have to see whether or not they can be put to use more effectively than they have in the past. If so, it would be a first since Paul Pasqualoni's departure (and a very welcome development).