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ACC football 2017 position preview: Special teams

Who’s excited to read 900 words about kicking and punting? (raises hand)

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, we wrapped up position previews by discussing the Syracuse Orange’s hot-and-cold special teams unit. While SU’s punting situation’s settled, the rest could provide some question marks -- not the best situation for a team that could really use field position help, among other things.

Following our Orange position group previews each week, we’ve also offered a glance at the rest of the ACC’s respective situations. Who’s in the best and worst shape? Which are the best returning players? And how does Syracuse compare to the rest of the league’s teams?


ACC Football 2017 Special Teams Preview

Last year’s top performers

The ACC had a couple truly elite punt returners last year, in Syracuse’s Brisly Estime and Pittsburgh’s Quadree Henderson -- with the primary advantage of the latter player being the fact that he took one to the house last year. But while the margin was slim on punts, Hederson put on a show as a kick returner. The sophomore scored three touchdowns on kicks last year and averaged over 30 yards per return in 30 tries. North Carolina’s TJ Logan may have had a higher average and two touchdowns of his own, but it was on less returns. Henderson was just electric.

As is typically the case, the league had its fair share of quality punters as well. The Orange’s Sterling Hofrichter put in an impressive debut while trying to replace Riley Dixon, and seven different ACC punters averaged more than 42 yards per. Two of those players — Virginia’s Nicholas Conte and Miami’s Justin Vogel -- graduated. But all but one of the rest were freshmen last year.

It’s also worth mentioning that Georgia Tech’s Harrison Butker was the ACC’s most accurate kicker last year. However, no one really blew away the competition. His 88.2 percent rate was on just 15-of-17 tries.

NCAA Football: Russell Athletic Bowl-West Virginia vs Miami Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Who will excel in 2017?

For starters, a lot of those punters. We can focus on Hofricther -- the rightful All-ACC punter -- but that’s not the whole story. Mason King, AJ Cole, Tom Sheldon and more also lead the way for the conference’s impressive former frosh. As for who’s returning those punts? That list may change a bit. Two of the top three from last year are gone, but that could move Henderson to the top of the heap. He’ll be joined by Miami’s Braxton Berrios, Louisville’s Jaire Alexander and Virginia Tech’s Greg Stroman in all likelihood. They’re the four ACC players to return punts for TDs last year.

At kicker, Blanton Creque (Louisville) should have the most opportunities to put points on the board. Mike Badgely (Miami) could as well, though, if the ‘Canes can figure out the quarterback spot.

Kickoff returns should once again be dominated by Henderson too, but Duke’s Shaun Wilson is a veteran there as well, and Virginia’s Joe Reed looked great there with a lot of opportunities. This is a spot where a random freshman can show up and light the world on fire, however.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Top three units: 1. Louisville, 2. Miami, 3. Virginia

Everyone is back for Louisville, and that’s a huge advantage in terms of winning the field position battle and working out the kinks early for coverage units and whatnot. Having a reliable return man is no easy task. But if you’ve got one, you have a huge leg up on a lot of other squads.

Virginia and Miami are banking on making a capable replacement at key spots. UVA’s Conte led the ACC in punting average at over 44 yards per (and on 74 punts too), so that’s not going to be a simple task to replace that production. However, Lester Coleman could be up for the task. He was all-state in Virginia back in high school. And while he hasn’t punted since then, he got to learn from Conte for a few seasons.

Bottom three units: 12. Syracuse, 13. Boston College, 14. North Carolina

Despite having the league’s top punter, everything else is really up in the air for the Orange. Cole Murphy’s been inconsistent for over a year now at kicker, plus replacing Estime will be difficult -- even though Sean Riley’s shown promise.

At BC, there’s a lot of seniority out the door, and even with ample opportunities to punt last year, the Eagles didn’t see amazing results there. They’ll need to replace both return men. It’s not an ideal situation for a team that could use the help on offense when it comes to field position.

At UNC, it’s a complete rebuild on special teams, which mimics a lot of other spots for the Heels this season. That sort of replacement could mean some early bumps in the road since this a new territory for everybody involved.

Top five special teams players in ACC

  1. Quadree Henderson, Pittsburgh
  2. Shaun Wilson, Duke
  3. Braxton Berrios, Miami
  4. Joe Reed, Virginia
  5. Sterling Hofrichter, Syracuse (not kidding)

Where does Syracuse rank?

We got into this above — they’re in a state of transition. So for right now, we’ll have to air on the side of them needing to prove more. If the return game can avoid missing a beat and Murphy can get his head right, however, the Orange special teams unit may end up being much better than projected. That’s a big plus, especially if the defense isn’t stopping teams with much regularity.