A little over a month ago, we started shining a lens on the Syracuse Orange special teams problem. Punting wasn’t going well, returns had dropped, and most of all, field goals had taken a major dip. Back then, Syracuse’s special teams were ranked 74th in S&P+. Since then, they’ve dropped all the way to 103rd -- and that’s with a strong uptick in punt return numbers by Brisly Estime and overall better punting from Sterling Hofrichter (the one shank on Saturday vs. Clemson not withstanding).
The main culprit here is field goals, which have become somewhat of a lost cause at this juncture for the Orange. Coming into the year, junior place kicker Cole Murphy was hitting 76-percent of field goals on his career, which was a serviceable clip for a college player (especially one that came in as a walk-on just a couple years ago). This year, Murphy’s just 8-for-16. Many of those misses have been from 40 yards or more out (and outdoors, too). But Saturday’s miss vs. Clemson was a 31-yard chip shot. He’s only made two of his last nine tries, and hasn’t hit more than 50-percent in a game since the USF loss.
At what point do we anticipate a change?
When asked about it last week, Dino Babers was ready to stick by his kicker, and claimed SU would be going with him until he got it right. You could tell that mindset was in full swing too when down by 37, he elected to give his kicker a shot at a pointless three points instead of potentially going for it and maybe putting a touchdown on the board against the Tigers.
The long tries are one thing, and Murphy can be excused for the pressures of being asked to hit from 40 or 50 yards with increasing regularity. But Syracuse also can’t escape the fact that field goals have become a liability this season — a frightening proposition that the Orange may as well ignore in favor of going for it on fourth down any time they’re on the opponents’ side of the field.
It might be time for Sterling Hofricther to take over.
Though he’s Syracuse’s starting punter at the moment, the redshirt freshman was recruited as both a kicker and punter in the class of 2015. Hofrichter was a three-star player and ranked among the top five kicking prospects in the country when the Orange earned his commitment. This wouldn’t be the same as him basically learning on the job (and replacing a legend) with punting duties. Place kicker is Hof’s natural position, and it might be time for him to add that role to his duties.
This is far from a hit piece on Murphy, but more an admittance of fact. Kicking is a mental game, and sometimes once you’re rattled, it can’t be undone. Roberto Aguayo was one of the most accurate kickers in college football history while at Florida State from 2013 to 2015. His resume was so impressive that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers moved up to draft him in the second round this spring. As a rookie in 2016, he’s just 7-for-12 on field goals, and has missed two extra points.
In the preseason, he needed a mental coach because it got to the point where he was shanking practice kicks and couldn’t hit in-game at all.
Maybe Murphy needs a mental coach? Or maybe Babers continues to give him shots to build his confidence back up to see if it works? Murphy’s misses have yet to really cost Syracuse a game this year. But should the team wait until they do?
It’ll be interesting to see just how much longer Babers “sticks with his kicker.” Obviously we’d prefer Murphy is able to right himself and get back to being the reliable player he was once. But as the misses pile up, it’s going to get harder and harder to ignore Hof’s abilities in that aspect of the game.