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Syracuse football 2018 position preview: Special teams

We’re potentially looking good... though an injury could provide some worry.

Middle Tennessee v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

With Syracuse Orange football kickoff less than two weeks away, we’ve reached our final position preview article.

Leading up to the 2018 kickoff, we’ve been profiling one group and every player suiting up at that position this fall. Last week, we took a look at the secondary and its transition to a 4-2-5 scheme. This time, we finish off with:

Special teams

If you buy into advanced metrics (and you certainly should for most things), Syracuse’s special teams were a top-10 unit last year. The punt unit was nearly flawless, kickoffs were better than average. The return game was actually pretty good on both punts and kicks... however, teams did start just completely avoiding giving us the ball there as much as possible.

There’s reason to believe things keep rolling along as intended this season, though breaking in a new kicker could make for some harrowing early field goal attempts (Cole Murphy was maligned, sure, but also extremely accurate within 40 yards). There’s also a newfound long-snapper question which is much more critical than you’re probably aware of.

Kickers

Sterling Hofricther, (Redshirt) Junior

We start with Hof the kicker, versus Hof the punter — who for all intents and purposes is a completely different player, especially at this juncture. Sterling was 1-for-2 in the opener versus Central Connecticut last year, hitting from 27 yards out and (understandably) missing from 51 yards. His only other attempt was a 38-yard make against NC State. He was technically a better kicker than punter in high school, so this may work out better than we think.

Nolan Cooney, (Redshirt) Sophomore

Cooney will be handling numerous duties this year, likely serving as the team’s kickoff specialist, as well as holder and backup punter. Kickoffs are an area that could improve a bit, which presents an opportunity for him. Holder — a role manned expertly in the past by Zack Mahoney — is where he may end up making the biggest impact, however (especially early in the year given the long snapper situation... more on that later).

Andre Szmyt, (Redshirt) Freshman

Szmyt could end up being Syracuse’s kickoff specialist if Cooney falls short. And his high school profile certainly says he has the pedigree to win the gig, given that he was seen as a four-star prospect by Kohl’s Kicking. We’re sold on Hof at kicker, but Szmyt’s a name to watch if things go south.

Cory Smigel, Freshman

Smigel has a different profile than most of SU’s kickers on the roster. He’s smaller but still has a big leg, and possesses soccer experience as well. If Szmyt and Cooney beat him out for the kickoff role, he could very well redshirt.

Punters

Sterling Hofrichter, (Redshirt) Junior

Now we talk Hof the punter. In year three, he’s (righfully) All-ACC after averaging 43.2 yards per punt, forced 28 fair catches and put 17 punts inside the 20. His success rate was all the way up at 75 percent, which gave Syracuse the fifth-highest rated punting unit in the country (according to S&P+). Hopefully we don’t have to use Hof as much this year, but he could be a top punter in the country.

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

Kick/Punt Returners

Sean Riley, Junior

Riley is back to field kicks and punts again, and could be one of the most dangerous kick returners in the ACC if teams actually start letting him touch the ball again. He averaged 24.5 yards per kick last year, which was third in the conference. Punt returns weren’t as successful, but that was largely because the shifty runner couldn’t gain a full head of steam while fielding punts. With luck, that gets a bit better (or we just see more fair catches).

Shyheim Cullen, (Redshirt) Junior

Cullen has become a special teams standout for Syracuse, and will be back with Riley on kick return duties again — largely as a blocker. Riley’s so effective on kicks that you want him touching the ball as much as possible. However, if need be, it could be interesting to see the hard-hitting Cullen take a few, too.

Antwan Cordy, (Redshirt) Senior

Cordy was positioned as a potential punt returner last year, but never got a shot to run any back before getting hurt versus CCSU. Given the fact that he’s struggled to avoid injury these past two years, I’d prefer we put someone else back there for punts. But the likelihood he gets much time on returns is slim... for now.

Long Snappers

Matt Keller, Senior

As has been alluded to above, Keller is hurt — though was taking some reps despite being in a walking boot late last week. The senior has been a staple for the Orange special teams group in recent years, and was the No. 1 long snapper coming out of high school back in 2015. Him getting reps is great. But if he can’t go early, who knows how that impacts kicks/punts.

Aaron Bolinsky, Freshman

Bolinsky is the primary way Syracuse’s special teams keep on moving along, should Keller not be able to go. Despite being a freshman, one potential saving grace is that he’s been on campus since January. We’ll see if he’s needed, but with Keller still in a boot, I’d say we see him for at least a game or two — which could really help next year, when he takes over the job more permanently.

The biggest question mark right now is kicker, where it’s reasonable to believe in Hofrichter. But if he can’t produce at the level needed, that could leave us turning toward inexperienced walk-ons. We’ve done it before, but those offenses also haven’t relied so heavily on the kicking game. With luck, Syracuse also tries fewer field goals in general, no matter who’s kicking.

SU’s punt return game could improve a bit, but it’s tough to see a solution there. If the defense manages to force more punts, that potentially creates more opportunities for Riley, though it’s not necessarily a role he’s well suited for. Alternatively, Nykeim Johnson could be an option there — though maybe less so this year than last, since he’s now a bigger part of the passing game. Only special teams coordinator Sean Lustig (likely) knows the right answer here...

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