Last month, we dove into the Syracuse Orange's extended streak without a punt return for a touchdown. The idea was that we really haven't had a dynamic punt returner on the roster since at least 2005, and that special teams had been a disaster since Steve Gregory graduated.
Now Steve Gregory's back as the special teams quality control coach, and... well, things already (yes, I know, it was Rhode Island) look to have turned around. Within seconds of the first whistle in Friday night's game, kicker Ryan Norton had already forced a fumble on the Rhode Island return, recovered by freshman Dontae Strickland. At the end of the first half, the dynamic Brisly Estime returned a punt for a touchdown -- Syracuse's first such score since 2003 (when Gregory was on the team). These are the type of things that DO NOT happen (or have not happened) for SU.
Now, it's still very early. And it WAS against Rhode Island, a pretty lackluster FCS team. But it's also hard to ignore just how different things looked for the Orange in terms of special teams, no? Some numbers:
- Syracuse returned four of nine Rhody punts for 96 yards and a score, which included a minus-1 yard return by Jacob Hill.
- Two kick returns for 46 yards doesn't sound all that impressive, but one of those was after a safety, so it was returned off a drop-kick. You're rarely going to see lengthy returns following safeties. Estime's other return went for 28 yards.
- URI (and the CAA's) top return man, Myles Holmes, has solid numbers at first glance (four returns for 107 yards). But when discounting his initial 40-yard return that he fumbled, you're left with a 22-yard average on the other three returns. That's the one area where things could probably still improve a bit.
... and there's so many other areas where the Orange just simply appeared to be better, by way of creating running lanes, blocking and beating blocks to get after ball-carriers. Since arriving on campus back in 2006, I can't really recall a Syracuse team that did all of these things with any consistency. Yet Friday night, it was all there.
Where Gregory can still make an even larger impact is in terms of blocked kicks and punts, which did not register yesterday but could very well in time with the right (read: Gregory-esque) athlete on those units.
Overall, it's hard to argue with Friday's heads-up play and results on special teams, especially when considering where we've come from (a decade of subpar performances in that facet of the game). Gregory's work is far from done while helping Syracuse special teams, but you have to like the direction things are currently headed in.