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Syracuse football 2019 season report card: Special teams

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Saving the best for last.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

After a highly disappointing 5-7 season, there are probably a lot of you that would rather not look back at 2019 for the Syracuse Orange football team. But before we move forward into what we hope is a much better 2020, it’s worth taking stock of what’s occurred.

Since last week, we’ve been going position by position recapping SU’s year to see what worked, what didn’t, and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or in many cases, a lack thereof). Yesterday, we finished talking about the defense with the secondary. Today, we’re closing out with:

Special teams

Though Dino Babers was brought to Syracuse for his offensive prowess, special teams has been a calling card for his Orange squads — especially since Justin Lustig arrived. This year’s may not have hit the high bar of last year’s (second overall in SP+), but a 14th-place finish is still pretty impressive.

As has been the case all four years he’s been a starter, a large part of that success comes from punter Sterling Hofrichter. During his senior year, Hof averaged nearly 44 yards per punt and put 31 inside the 20 (plus 11 inside the 10), and as a reward for such strong play, he’s a Ray Guy Award finalist. We’ve long thought that Hofrichter was the nation’s top punter. Now the entire country may need to recognize it.

In case you forgot, Hofrichter also hit a 52-yard field goal against Holy Cross. That didn’t mean he was stealing Andre Szmyt’s job, though. Far from it. The defending Lou Groza Award winner wasn’t asked to hit 30 field goals this year like he was in 2018. That’s what we wanted — just not for the reason (more touchdowns) we were hoping for.

Still, Szmyt was 17-of-20 for the year, with six of those coming from 40 yards or longer. He was also 39-of-40 on extra points, unfortunately missing his first PAT as a member of the Orange. Despite the step back in term of stats, he’s still among the best kickers in the sport. With luck, Syracuse is at least able to put him in more positions to kick extra points next season.

The rest of SU’s special teams wasn’t necessarily as impressive as the punting and place kicking was, but still had its high points.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse opponents averaged just 1.7 yards per punt return, which was sixth-best in the country and in large part due to Hof’s success. But the kick coverage unit was among the country’s worst, at 24.21 yards per return (though one saving grace was that there were only 19 actual returns on the year).

Looking at their own returns, Sean Riley seemed to take a bit of a step back for the Orange when it came to running back both punts and kicks. After averaging over 24 yards per kick return as a sophomore in 2017, Riley went for 20.5 per return last year and only 17.27 this year. Nykeim Johnson didn’t fare much better at just 19.17 yards per return. But Markenzy Pierre (24 yards per) and the thrilling Jawhar Jordan (28.5 average on four returns) potentially looked the part. One shouldn’t be surprised to see Jordan as the team’s primary kick returner come 2020.

SU’s punt returns were middle of the road, on an average of 8.54 yards (51st in the country) against 16 tries. Fumbles were also a larger issue than we’d seen in past years, including a critical one vs. Louisville in week 13 that potentially shifted the game in the Cards’ favor.

Was this group what we’ve come to expect under Lustig? Yes and no. Like we said above, punting and kicking were more of the same, while coverage and returns left something to be desired. A big part of Syracuse’s 2018 success was a distinct field position advantage; something special teams plays a major part of. If they want to get back to winning football, a return to form in all aspects of special teams will play a role. Changes to the return game could help. But we’re also replacing Hofrichter — something that will prove to be a distinct challenge.

Grade: B+