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Syracuse 2018 spring football preview: Special teams

There’s a major question mark for this year, but that doesn’t necessarily spell failure.

Middle Tennessee v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Spring practice is nearly complete for the Syracuse Orange, as things wrap up this Friday with the 2018 spring game. If you’re in the area, you can attend for free at the Carrier Dome for the 7 p.m. start (gates open at 5 p.m.). Or you can also watch on ACC Network Extra/WatchESPN.

Syracuse gave us an early look at depth charts on both sides of the ball for this year. And since then, we’ve been digging into each position group to preview what could happen this spring and how that prepares SU for this fall. If you missed last week’s topic, here’s our look at the defensive backs.

Today’s topic:

Placekicker position looks to avoid becoming a major liability

Who’s on campus?

Only a handful of scholarship players: punter/kicker Sterling Hofrichter and long snapper Matt Keller lead the way there, plus Sean Riley is set to handle both punt and kick returns, with Shyheim Cullen (kickoffs) and Antwan Cordy (punts) backing him up.

However, beyond these primary specialists is a lengthy collection of walk-ons that we’ll likely see a bit of. Nolan Cooney (the forgotten Cooney brother) handles kickoffs and holding duties, and the newly added Aaron Bolinsky backs up Keller at long snapper. Andre Szmyt, Cory Smigel and Jeff Chan could also be in the mix for kicking duties.

Who’s arriving this summer?

No one that we’re aware of.

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

How do you replace Cole Murphy?

There were moments in Cole Murphy’s career where we really didn’t know how reliable he could be from week to week. But overall, he ended up being one of the best kickers in school history from a numbers standpoint as Syracuse relied heavily on him to offset red zone woes.

The Orange have a solution in place, in the form of Hofrichter pulling double duty at kicker and punter. Hof hit 2-of-3 field goals last year, plus a PAT and was a kicker in high school, so this isn’t a stretch to see him in this role. It’ll be interesting to see if his leg is up to the challenge of kicking 2-3 field goals, 4-5 extra points, and 4-5 punts per game.

If he falters in the kicking role at all, that’s where things get a bit risky for Syracuse. The fleet of walk-on kickers, plus Cooney, are all waiting in the wings. The hope is that one of them can fill the void well enough to prevent the position from becoming a liability. SU has leaned heavily on the kicking game for points in recent seasons. So either there’s little drop-off or (ideally) they stop settling for field goals so often by being more efficient near the end zone.

Hofricther’s punting prowess continues

Hof is no stranger to the idea of replacing an Orange special teams stand out. He already had to step into the shoes of SU legend Riley Dixon two years ago.

In the two years since, he’s established himself as one of the ACC’s top punters and is putting up numbers similar to what Dixon himself did at SU -- minus the fakes, hurdles and defensive back destruction, of course. After averaging 42.7 yards per punt on 77 attempts in 2016, he managed 43.2 on 57 attempts last year. That’s not a huge increase, but I’ll take the fact that we had 20 fewer punts. Syracuse’s punting actually scored out as a top-five unit in terms of success rate in 2017, as Hofrichter managed to make 78.9 percent of his punts either fair catches or balls downed inside the 20.

If he can take yet another step forward there, the punting game could become an even greater weapon in SU’s arsenal — though hopefully we need a whole lot less of it.

Can Syracuse avoid settling for field goals in the red zone?

We’re used to red zone issues around here, as the problems pre-date Dino Babers by at least a couple head coaching tenures. Still, last year was yet another frustrating collection of unrealized trips inside the 20, only to come away with a minimal amount of points.

Syracuse finished the season 82nd in red zone scoring percentage, at just 82.98. In 47 trips, they scored just 23 touchdowns, and hit 16 field goals. That’s... not good.

The part about settling for field goals wasn’t even a product of the scheme. Babers actually went for it quite a bit. But the offense frequently stalled out as it got closer to the goal line and its speed and tempo was negated by the smaller field in front of them (leading to a defensive advantage). A lack of a true power run game was also problematic. If they can fix these issues, then kicking questions become much less important.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Riley on kick returns vs. Sean Riley on punt returns

Riley has the speed and ability to be a major factor in the field position game. It’s just that opposing teams are well aware of that (especially on kickoffs) and refuse to put the ball anywhere near him anymore.

Last year, he had 29 kick returns for an average of 24.5 yards each, while averaging 7.8 yards on 17 punt returns. While those figures don’t sound overly impressive, they did help rank Syracuse among the top 40 in terms of success rate for both categories — it ends up that Riley was able to be incredibly effective as a deterrent, even if he wasn’t actually touching the football.

That was more true on kicks than punts, however. SU was top-30 in terms of yards per return on kickoffs, but in the lower half of the country on punts. Following an early fumble, Riley also got a bit smarter and more cautious on punt returns, which sort of took that out of the game entirely. As a team, the Orange had just five total punt returns over the final five games -- though part of that is a product of the defense failing to stop anyone in some of those contests (thus not forcing punts).

Riley’s run style requires a full head of steam, which is not something he can necessarily get when returning punts. His ability to quickly split defenders is impressive, but it’s a liability for the team and his well-being (he’s not a big player, after all) to catch and run the way we saw early in 2017. If he can continue to improve as a returner and deterrent on kicks, that might be enough. It’s better than taking unnecessary risks on punts, anyway.