Syracuse Orange football coach Dino Babers completed his staff last week with the addition of Justin Lustig. While SU hasn’t confirmed just yet, that should be coming soon enough. Lustig will coach the running backs and special teams -- replacing Mike Hart and a portion of Tom Kaufman’s old gig as well.
Lustig comes from (DII) Edinboro University, where he recently served as head coach. But more than that, he’s a very experienced special teams coach at the FBS level. He handled special teams and running backs at UL-Lafayette from 2009-10, then moved on to Ball State to handle the same role from 2011-15.
Of course, while we’ll welcome the assist with regards to the run game, the bigger draw for bringing Lustig on is his expertise on the special teams side.
Below, is a look at all seven of Lustig’s seasons as a special teams coordinator (five at Ball State, two at UL-Lafayette), and how they stack up against those same sevens seasons of Syracuse special teams play. All rankings are national, courtesy of CFBStats.com (top-40 seasons in green, bottom-40 in red).
(*for confusion about “BLK,” that’s blocked field goals and punts)
The peaks are pretty obvious for the Orange. High numbers correlate to players like Brisly Estime, Rob Long and Riley Dixon (among others). And you can also see a direct correlation between Steve Gregory’s season back on campus and some pretty high numbers across the board.
For Lustig, there’s obviously plenty of player attribution, too. Kicker Scott Secor was the MAC’s top special teams player in 2014. Kick returners Eric Patterson and Jamill Smith managed all-conference honors, as did punter Scott Kovanada and kicker Steve Schott.
Even if his time at ULL didn’t look quite as good on its face, the punt unit had its high points, and was also limited by one of the smallest football budgets in FBS. Still, for four straight years with both the Ragin’ Cajuns and Cardinals, Lustig’s special teams units blocked at least three punts or kicks in each season.
Tracking back to Gregory, we saw the difference that quality special teams coaching can have at Syracuse — along with the numbers above, Estime also returned two punts for TDs in 2015. That team lost plenty of games, but with strong special teams play and a quality turnover margin, they stayed in games. If that group had just managed an offense, they could’ve accomplished a whole lot more.
Babers will obviously bring offense to the table, and that could pay huge dividends for Lustig if he gets similar sorts of results from SU’s special teams this year as he did with Ball State for much of his tenure there.
While former linebackers/special teams coach Tom Kaufman found results from the veteran linebacking corps. in 2016, special teams failed to show similarly positive outcomes. In fact, there was a steep and noticeable decline by mid-season -- to the point where Syracuse finished all the way down at 86th in the S&P+ (overall) special teams rankings.
That downtrodden figure comes despite top-30 performances from the punting and punt return units (huge credit to both Estime and freshman Sterling Hofricther there). It underlines just how disconcerting special teams was in other key metrics like kickoffs, kick returns, field goals and PATs last year.
Lustig can change all of that, however, or so we hope. Special teams has long been a problem area for this program; we’re going on a decade of uneven play in that department. Compared to Hart, who was a rising recruiter, Lustig’s add is largely based on his expertise with regard to a major team need. That will likely shine the light on his performance that much more brightly and he gets acclimated late in the spring portion of football’s long offseason.