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ACC football 2018 position preview: Special teams

We know Syracuse’s special teams are pretty good, but can every other ACC team say the same?

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Things haven’t been perfect for the Syracuse Orange during Dino Babers’s tenure, but one thing that’s seemingly excelled is special teams. Consistency to this point at both punter and kicker has assisted that. Now that we’re getting some change there in the form of Cole Murphy’s departure, there’s reason to question what happens next. I just happen to believe things will be just fine.

Along with our Syracuse position group previews each week, we’ve also been taking a look at the rest of the ACC’s respective situations. Which teams are in the best shape? And the worst? And how does Syracuse stack up comparatively? Today:

ACC Football 2018 Special Teams Preview

Last year’s top performers

Just four kicks went back for touchdowns last year in the entire conference — two from Virginia’s Joe Reed and two from North Carolina’s Anthony Ratliff-Williams. They were also the only two players to average more yards per kick return than Syracuse’s Sean Riley. The ACC’s punt returners were even more successful, with Quadree Henderson (Pitt) and Greg Stroman (Virginia Tech) had two scores apiece, while Clemson’s Ray-Ray McCloud had one himself.

Seven different conference punters averaged at least 43 yards per punt, led by Pitt’s Ryan Winslow. There were a lot of highly accurate kickers in the league too, but the most impressive were Ricky Aguayo (Florida State) and Blanton Creque (Louisville), who both topped 85 percent on the season while hitting at least 17 field goals apiece.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Florida State Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Who will excel in 2018?

Aguayo’s back at FSU, and should get far more scoring opportunities this season with an up-tempo Willie Taggart offense. Creque also returns for Louisville, and Clemson’s Greg Huegel comes back healthy (though he was just 2-of-4 in the first three games before getting injured this past year). Meanwhile, the league’s top punter is none other than Syracuse’s Sterling Hofrichter, who made a habit of pinning teams back with one of the highest punt success rates in the country.

Reed and Ratliff-Williams both return with an eye on getting back into the end zone on kickoffs. Along with those standouts, Riley’s also a name to watch if he can actually get opponents to start kicking to him again (they largely halted the practice half-way through the year). BC’s Michael Walker didn’t return any punts for scores last year, but averaged over 13 yards per on 27 tries. The rest of the ACC’s top punt returners are gone, but FSU’s D.J. Matthews is probably the next-best available (he averaged over 11 yards per return).

Top three units: 1. Louisville, 2. North Carolina, 3. Syracuse

As mentioned, Creque is back for the Cardinals, and Mason King returns at punter as well after averaging over 43 yards per punt as a sophomore. There’s experience at kick and punt return spots as well, with Seth Dawkins and Russ Yeast (both standouts in their own respective rights elsewhere on the UL roster).

UNC has Ratliff-Williams returning both kicks and punts, plus Freeman Jones (kicker) and Hunter Lent (punter) are seniors. Syracuse has Riley and Hofrichter... and that’s everybody, really since each player handles two of the primary special teams roles. They’re both very good, even if we have some questions around Riley on punts.

Bottom three units: 12. Georgia Tech, 13. NC State, 14. Duke

Duke has to replace a lot and that means far more questions than answers after Shaun Wilson’s departure. Though that doesn’t mean they’ll crater, either. There’s no group in this conference that’s truly bad. Just those without experience.

Georgia Tech’s return game was among the worst in the conference, though that’s balanced out in some ways by having one of the ACC’s top punting averages (led by Pressley Harvin III). NC State has A.J. Cole at punter for their own part, but there’s no Nyheim Hines to handle returns anymore.

Top five specialists

  1. Sterling Hofrichter, Syracuse
  2. Ricky Aguayo, Florida State
  3. Anthony Ratliff-Williams, North Carolina
  4. Blanton Creque, Louisville
  5. Michael Walker, Boston College
Middle Tennessee v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Where does Syracuse rank?

As mentioned, third in the conference. Perhaps that’s a big high based on losing your senior placekicker, but I’m willing to bet Hofrichter does just fine as his stand-in (otherwise, Dino Babers would’ve tried to make other arrangements). As long as kicking duties don’t affect his punting and Riley continues returning kicks as well as he has in the past, SU’s special teams could be a major asset this season in the quest to make the defense’s job a bit easier. See? Look what having a dedicated special teams coach does...

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