The Syracuse Orange football program finished 10-3 in 2018 — the first time SU’s done as much since 2001. So while these postseason reviews typically end up skewing toward what went wrong, hopefully this is the first of many seasons in a row where we get to happily recap what went very right.
Despite winning 10 games, though, it’s not as if things were perfect. These “report cards” serve as an assessment of both good and bad. Looking back at the past season, we’re going position by position, to see what worked, what didn’t and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or in rare cases, lack thereof). Hopefully you enjoy. And why wouldn’t you? We have a top-25 team to root for again.
Thursday was the secondary. We wrap up our series with:
For years, Syracuse didn’t have anyone on staff specifically handling special teams. Our punters remained great, mind you. But there was much to be desired out of nearly every other part of kicking, punt coverage and returns.
That started to change when Steve Gregory was brought on board by Scott Shafer, and then improved even further when Dino Babers hired Justin Lustig. In Lustig’s two years on campus, the Orange have had one of the best special teams units in the entire country. This year, it was second overall and the 10th-best in FBS since 2006.
It was a complete effort, too.
First and foremost, former walk-on Andre Szmyt was a consensus All-American and won the Lou Groza Award for the best kicker in football, making 30 of 34 tries this season — second-most in FBS history. There was a chance that the field goal kicking game took a step back without Cole Murphy, and yet Szmyt stepped in, hit a lot of kicks at a high rate of success and even nailed three over 50 yards.
Ideally, you want Syracuse punching the ball into the end zone more, so field goals are less a part of our game. But until the red zone issues are rectified, might as well make the most out of your opportunities and Szmyt did.
At punter, Sterling Hofrichter was fantastic once again. He averaged 42.9 yards per (on 67 punts), forcing 27 fair catches and putting 24 kicks inside the 20. Hof’s punting success rate was 67.2 percent as well (SU’s was 28th-best as a team). That “inside the 20” mark also doesn’t even capture how frequently he was able to put it inside the 10.
Hofrichter also manned kickoffs this year, managing a 94.1 percent success rate on 102 kicks. Nearly 60 percent of his kicks went for touchbacks. SU’s kickoff efficiency was seventh overall.
As always, return opportunities were few and far between, yet Sean Riley seemed to do the most with the moments when opponents would actually put the ball near him. The speedy junior averaged 16.6 yards per punt return, and took back a touchdown (vs. UConn). On kickoffs, he averaged 20.5 yards per return, though it’s getting more and more pointless to try to run those out given the new touchback rules.
Syracuse ranked in the top 30 in every special teams category SB Nation’s Bill Connelly tracks efficiency metrics for, and that doesn’t include the heady coverage plays and blocks, either. Riley, Jamal Custis, Trill Williams and others all came up big in various spots there, applying effective pressure and causing a turnover or two in the process (hat tip to Trill for the blocked-punt TD versus Wagner).
Having a focused coordinator on special teams paid obvious dividends for this team in terms of points on the board, and creating more effective offense, too. Syracuse had one of the best averaging starting field positions in the country all year, and you can credit this special teams group for a lot of that — along with the turnover-minded defense that had a habit of flipping the field.
Can this group repeat the magic for another season? It would appear so with every important piece back. Though Matt Keller departs as long snapper, he only played about half of this season anyway, and Aaron Bolinsky appeared to step in well in relief. If special teams hits similar marks to what we’ve become accustomed to under Lustig, I’m actually curious to see how much higher the Orange can go on that aforementioned list of best special teams units since 2006.
Final grade: A+