What’s going on with the Syracuse Orange’s special teams play?
Going into the season, we saw special teams as an area that could see a slight dip by way of Riley Dixon’s departure. The hope (or thought) was that Dixon leaving could be counterbalanced by having a dedicated member of the coaching staff for special teams. Last year, Steve Gregory appeared to usher in a new era of success for the unit from his position as special teams quality control coordinator. With the regime change, Gregory wasn’t retained, but Tom Kaufman was added as the special teams and linebackers coach.
While the linebackers are the one potential highlight for the defensive unit, the special teams... have dropped off considerably.
The cracks began to show in week two against Louisville. Kickoff struggles, of all things, reared their ugly heads and continued through the UConn game. Sterling Hofrichter, challenged with the unenviable task of finding similar success to Dixon, has been hot and cold in his first year as SU’s punter. His averages actually aren’t too much worse (42.1 yards per punt for him, vs. Dixon’s 43.7 in his final year), but those don’t take into account punts inside the 20, where Dixon excelled.
Brisly Estime, one of the best punt returners in the country last year, was removed from the role around week two, leading to a drop in production from freshman Sean Riley. Riley actually showed himself to be an upgrade in the kick return department, but his punt return abilities haven’t matched the electricity Estime provided (he’s had six fair catches vs. one actual return). Estime returned to the role in the second half against UConn, and has averaged 21.9 yards per return.
Cole Murphy, the team’s fairly consistent placekicker, was shaky on those kickoffs, and over the last two games we’re seeing him rattled on field goals too. Murphy missed just nine field goals and one extra point in his first two seasons. He’s already missed four field goals this year, and missed an extra point - plus Notre Dame blocked another XP on Saturday. Away from the Carrier Dome, he’s just 1-for-4 on field goals this year.
If the above numbers seem anecdotal, perhaps advanced metrics hammer it home further. Last year, Bill Connelly’s S&P+ had Syracuse’s special teams as the 32nd-best unit in the country. This year? They’re 74th and trending downward.o
So, what’s wrong? See above. But what can the Orange do about it? That’s the trouble. We don’t know what happens in practice each week, and we don’t know how much time Kaufman gets to spend with that unit. We know the results have shown diminishing returns, especially in the kicking game, so perhaps one fix is to work with Murphy to gain more confidence away from the Dome?
Kaufman and the staff have shown they’re not afraid to make changes on the fly. Estime was re-inserted as a punt returner mid-game vs. the Huskies. And the team fixed the kickoff issues too, it seemed, at least from what we saw against Notre Dame.
There are other factors that aren’t really captured in these statics, however, and that’s where the real trouble is brewing. Syracuse has allowed a punt return and a kick return for a touchdown already. On average, they’re allowing 13.22 yards per punt return (108th in the FBS), and 23.67 per kick return (107th). The Irish returned a blocked extra point for two points with relative ease on Saturday.
This, and the kickoff stuff, is what’s disturbing. This isn’t technical in nature like field goals or punt placement -- things that can improve with adjustments and some concerted work on mechanics. The things that are most wrong are the things that are very basic parts of the game. SU’s even taken steps to fix the punt returns (rugby-style punting to let the coverage team get down the field), but those results haven’t really come through yet.
None of this is to pan the players on special teams or Coach Kaufman. There’s time yet this season to make the necessary fixes. It’s just to highlight some things that are going far from right thus far (and are negatively impacting on-field results), and seeing if we can spot ways they can be corrected. It’s very likely the coaching staff is doing the same thing as we speak, too. Hopefully there are better results to take a look at come next week.