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Syracuse football 2016 report card: Special teams

There were some bright spots here, despite the gargantuan task of replacing Riley Dixon.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

While the Syracuse Orange went 4-8 for the second consecutive year, it was far from the same 4-8 the team saw in its final season under Scott Shafer. In Dino Babers’s first campaign, SU’s offense looked far more capable and the team looked more competitive overall. They also dealt with a boatload of injuries and a difficult schedule — both of which scuttled chances to improve in the win column this year.

Still, after what was an admittedly fun season, it’s worth looking back to see which units did well and which failed to, and how that impacted the Orange’s success or lack thereof.

We conclude with...

Special Teams

Last year’s special teams unit was Syracuse’s best weapon in a season where they failed to move the ball much or stop the ball well either. Riley Dixon was one of the country’s best punters, while Cole Murphy spent much of the year being a pretty accurate placekicker. Special teams quality control assistant Steve Gregory seemed to improve coverage teams quite a bit, and Brisly Estime managed to take back two kicks for touchdowns during an All-America-type campaign.

One season later, a whole lot changed for SU.

Redshirt freshman Sterling Hofrichter replaced Dixon, and while he couldn’t match ALL of the former Orange punter’s prowess as a runner, passer and kicker, he still put in a serviceable effort in 2016. He was top-30 in the country in punting average (42.71) despite having more attempts than all but three other players. He also avoided touchbacks, which proved beneficial to the defense when they’d actually take advantage of it.

On the other side of the punting equation, things were back and forth, depending on who was returning. Early on, Syracuse Linebackers Coach/Special Teams Coordinator Tom Kaufman had both Estime and freshman Sean Riley returning punts with marginal results. Around midseason, Estime re-took the full-time role, which drastically improved the team’s results there. He averaged 17.69 yards per -- second in the country -- on 16 returns. While he didn’t make it to the end zone this year, his total yardage (283 yards) was also fourth overall.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The kicking game did not receive the same type of results, unfortunately. The Orange were 80th in the country, averaging just over 20 yards per return on 64 kicks (tied for the top regular season mark in FBS, by the way). Meanwhile, opponents averaged over 24 yards per return against them -- 118th in the nation.

Field goals were equally problematic, especially away from home. Cole Murphy hit just 10 of 18 (55.6 percent), which was among the country’s worst rates. On the road or at neutral sites, he was just 1-of-6. His former accuracy (was hitting over 80 percent heading into 2016) was gone all year, replaced with a very bad case of the jitters.

Heading into this fall, we were lauding the fact that the team had its first full-time special teams coach in nearly a decade, and yet, Syracuse arguably had its worst results in nearly a decade too. It’s tough to tell if this confluence is more attributable to Gregory’s departure or Kaufman’s arrival — or perhaps there’s more to Dixon’s departure than we realize? But in any case, this group took a definitive step back in 2016 that’s hopefully corrected this offseason.

Final Grade: C+