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Syracuse football 2017 report card: Special teams

How do we think special teams fared this year?

Pittsburgh v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange football program went 4-8 for the third consecutive season. But since I’m not one to let anything die a peaceful death, we’re rehashing the year anyway (while also looking forward a bit, too).

Another injury-riddled season provides plenty to ponder this offseason, and as we’re all acutely aware, there’s a high level of “what if” to Syracuse’s 2017 campaign as well. Between all of that, the difficult schedule and the Clemson win, it’s easy to dig around the results for just about any narrative you want.

We wrap up our position-by-position recaps with SU’s special teams unit.

Field goal kicking got a bit uncertain at Syracuse in 2016, leading us to a shaky assessment going into 2017. Cole Murphy had morphed into a bit of a basket case, though some of that was also created by being put into challenging situations (especially on the road).

Syracuse v North Carolina State Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

A new and improved Cole Murphy showed up in 2017, and started off the year pretty well. He was 16-of-18 kicking field goals through the first eight games, and the resurgence appeared to be powered by some new meditation techniques. He wasn’t just hitting chip shots, either. Murphy hit from 40 or longer in seven different games, and from 50 or longer in another two. The senior left SU with the single-season and career field goals records. Not bad for a guy who we were concerned may lose his job at some point this season.

The player we thought he could lose that gig to was actually Syracuse’s punter, Sterling Hofrichter. The Hof ended up hitting two of three field goals on the year, but where he was most effective once again was punting the ball (of course). As a sophomore, his average jumped up to 43.2 yards per punt. He forced 28 fair catches and put 20 punts inside the 20-yard line. Considering he also punted the ball 20 fewer times in 2017 vs. 2016, it’s no small feat that he improved most of these numbers.

But that’s sort of where the highlights end for SU’s special teams. Sean Riley manned punt and kick returns, but the results didn’t necessarily follow despite some promise.

Central Connecticut State v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Some of that’s not necessarily on him, either. Once he showed some breakaway ability early on, teams pretty much avoided him for the rest of the season. He averaged over 24 yards per return when he did get a chance, though. Riley has the capability to be a real game-changing player on kicks — but that may also be his biggest detriment to doing so.

Punt returns, on the other hand, were a different story... Riley did well enough (averaged 7.8 yards per punt), but didn’t really get the hang of the gig until the second half of the season. Early issues included a reckless approach that regularly put him in harm’s way. Whether it was a player-led correction or a coaching change, though, it did get better (when SU could actually force punts come the later parts of the year, that is).

Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rates Syracuse as the eighth-best special teams unit in the country. And while that sounds pretty good, Bill himself has admitted that part of the rating system may need a little tweaking. Still, there was a lot to like about the group when they had the ball.

Kick and punt coverage do present their own issues, and have for years. But there were bright spots there as well. The team’s fumble recovery against Wake Forest could’ve been what sealed that potential win (until SU was killed in the second half). And I can count a handful of really strong tackles made by our coverage units as well.

But for the second time in three years, things will sort of hit reset here next year. Murphy will need to be replaced, and the options are a fleet of walk-on kickers and Hofrichter. Given how often the Orange settle for field goals in the red zone, that’s potentially problematic. The pressure will be on the offense to actually punch it over the goal line now (which could end up being a good thing).

Grade: B

Other unit grades: