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Syracuse 2017 spring football preview: Special teams

Good start: We have a dedicated special teams coach.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve flipped the calendar to 2017 for Syracuse Orange football. That started with spring practice, which began on March 21, and goes through April 22.

As spring football winds down, we complete our series digging into each position group to preview what might happen in the coming months, and how that sets up the upcoming season.

Today's topic:

Special teams may endure a much-needed shake-up

Who’s on campus?

All of the main contributors for 2017. Brisly Estime’s graduated, but Sean Riley will be the primary return man in his place (we saw him in spots last year). Shyheim Cullen also moves to secondary kick returner to back him up in that aspect of the game.

Cole Murphy’s still the starting placekicker, but not without competition this time around. Punter Sterling Hofrichter (who came in as a kicker and punter) should push him there. Walk-ons Nolan Cooney, Alex Grossman and Emerson Womble are all available options as well.

The reliable Matt Keller will also handle long-snapping duties again, backed up by Nathan Hines.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Unlikely anyone, really. Maybe one of the freshmen wideouts is able to work his way into kick return duties. But other than that, the group Syracuse has this spring is pretty much it.

How will Justin Lustig impact special teams play this year?

Hopefully a lot. While he comes from DII Edinboro, Lustig actually has a lot of experience at the FBS level coaching special teams. That has the potential to pay big dividends for an Orange squad that struggled in that department last season.

Based on what we’ve seen from him at past stops (Ball State, UL-Lafayette), expect efficient kicking, a dynamic kick return game and perhaps some continuation of previously seen punt return success.

His previous teams haven’t necessarily excelled punting the football (or at least, they haven’t as much as Syracuse has in the same stretch). But hopefully he’ll get acclimated quickly to how we do things around here. #PuntingOrGTFO

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

Were Cole Murphy’s struggles an anomaly last year?

Over his first two full seasons, Murphy hit more than 76 percent of his field goals, all but one extra point and appeared automatic from inside 40 yards. But that wasn’t the case for the junior last season, as something came undone.

Murphy started the year 4-for-4 in game on vs. Colgate, then went just 6-of-14 the rest of the way (and 10-of-18 on the season). Whether home or away, long or short, it suddenly appeared like Murphy was in his own head. He missed three extra points to boot.

His history says it was a blip, but with a small sample size, you can never be certain. That brings us to...

Can Sterling Hofrichter win the kicking job in spring?

Last season, we wondered if Hofrichter should’ve taken the gig himself given Murphy’s dip in reliability. This spring, he’s been sharing duties with Murphy and could be neck-and-neck with him as the team departs for some time off.

Hofrichter arrived at SU as a highly-regarded kicker, so this isn’t new territory for him. If Murphy holds onto the job this offseason, he’ll likely have a short leash with the Hof waiting in the wings with in-game experience.

Can Sean Riley effectively replace Brisly Estime?

With Estime at the controls, Syracuse was among the most effective punt returning teams in the country last year (fifth-best, according to Bill Connelly’s metrics). Early in the year, Riley got some burn on punt returns, but with far less effectiveness.

His kick returning was better than Estime’s, actually, but not by a ton. On 53 returns, he averaged just 20.7 yards per. He’ll need to be a whole lot more dynamic if SU’s offense is going to be set up for success. The team’s average starting field position was on its own 27.7-yard line (113th in the country). Riley getting more off of his returns helps that, and stops the offense from being pinned back right from the jump.

So CAN Riley replace Estime? In the kicking game, yes. Assuming blocking continues to improve, along with the influx of speed on the roster, we could see him make gains there. Punt returns will take some work, as Estime was one of the most dynamic punt returners the program’s seen. Give the sophomore some time, however, and perhaps he rounds into his own version of success.

What’s Hof’s ceiling at punter?

It may not be Riley Dixon levels (yet), but the upper limit of what Hofricther can do has yet to even be sniffed. Despite primarily being a kicker, Hof actually excelled in his redshirt freshman season at punter. He averaged 42.7 yards per on 77 punts, with just three touchbacks and 21 punts inside the 20.

For reference, in his first full season handling punting duties (2013), Dixon averaged 42.15 yards per on 75 punts.

With luck, Hof won’t have to punt as much as he did last year. But if he does, there’s a chance the results increase even more (from last year’s already-top 30 results).


Any other questions or thoughts about the Syracuse’s defensive backs for 2017? Share below.