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Syracuse 2019 spring football preview: Special teams

Closing out our preview series with one of the Orange’s strongest position groups.

NCAA Football: Camping World Bowl-West Virginia vs Syracuse Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange football program is just over a week away from the annual spring game at the Carrier Dome, and with that, our position group previews come to a close. Last week, we explored whether the young secondary can continue to take strides forward. Finally:

What can SU’s special teams realistically do for an encore?

Who’s gone?

Long snapper Matt Keller, who was a big part of this group’s success and consistency over the last four years. Also, Shy Cullen is not on campus right now, but could be once again come the summer. He’s played a role in kick coverage and returns and has been one of the SU’s standouts there while gaining a reputation as a big hitter.

Who’s on campus?

Everyone else.

Lou Groza Award winner Andre Szmyt returns after hitting 30 of 34 field goal tries last season. Redshirt senior punter and kickoff specialist Sterling Hofrichter also returns for his final go-around with the Orange, as does expert return man Sean Riley.

Beyond the headliners, Aaron Bolinsky is back to take over long snapper duties full-time (he played in seven games last year) and reserve kicker/punter Nolan Cooney.

Who’s arriving this summer?

Maybe there’s a walk-on kicker added to the roster, and maybe Cullen returns. But that’s pretty much it.

Can Andre Szmyt break the FBS single-season field goal record?

And more importantly, do we want him to? Szmyt’s Syracuse-record 30 field goal makes last year were partly a product of the offense still managing to stall out pretty regularly inside the 40-yard line. If Szmyt ties or breaks the FBS mark of 31 (by Georgia’s Billy Bennett in 2003), that probably means the Orange are settling a bit more than we’d like.

There’s also the question of whether he winds up in the same headspace he was last year. Szmyt was almost too calm at times back in 2017, according to former SU kicker Cole Murphy, but that trait seemed to help significantly this past season. When it looked like he might’ve been rattled late in the year, Dino Babers doubled down on him late against Notre Dame just to boost his confidence following a miss.

He should be fine. But college kickers can ebb and flow. Just something to watch this year.

Does anything change with Justin Lustig’s promotion?

Lustig remains in charge of special teams (and outside receivers), but will add the title of “assistant head coach” as well for this season. Since arriving from Edinboro University in 2017, Lustig has been instrumental in Syracuse’s special teams success as the Orange have become one of the best units in the country — and spent most of 2018 at No. 1 according to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings.

We don’t necessarily know how or if Lustig’s new role will change his old one, but it could just mean he’s spending a little more extra time overseeing — versus taking time away from the special teams unit. If anything, his approach that’s coached up special team these past two years could wind up being a boon elsewhere.

Is anyone actually going to kick to Sean Riley this year?

Riley established himself as a deadly return man in 2017, so as a result, most teams tried to avoid him on both kicks and punts in 2018. After his three punt returns for 110 yards and a touchdown against UConn last year, he really didn’t get another good opportunity to bring one back until four games later vs. NC State (one for 15 yards). He only had 16 punt returns on the year, plus 18 kickoff returns while averaging just 20.5 yards per attempt.

I doubt anyone’s going to forget about his prowess taking back punts, but teams might actually be willing to kick to him a bit this year. The new touchback rules instituted last year will automatically cut back on returns, sure. If opponents can’t get enough hangtime to put in inside the 20 and get the coverage team down there, though, perhaps Riley gets a few shots at it this time around.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

What’s Sterling Hofrichter’s legacy at Syracuse?

Well, it’s already pretty well established that Hof will be one of the better punters in school history. But (Riley Dixon, cover your ears), he may wind up being the best one when it’s all said and done.

Hof’s already amassed over 8,600 punting yards and is averaging 42.9 yards per punt over the course of his career. It’s going to take a bit of an effort to take the top spot in school history (Sean Reall’s 43.6 per is pretty far out there). But he could wind up with the most punts in program history, sitting just 70 below Brendan Carney for No. 1. He’s also within shouting distance of the total yardage mark (around 3,000 short). He may not hold the cult status of Dixon given Riley’s abilities running the football (and throwing it too), but Hof and his All-ACC abilities could wind up looking pretty impressive by the end of 2019.