The 2019 Syracuse Orange football season is nearly here, and with that, we’ve arrived at our final position group preview of the summer.
Each week leading up to this season, we’ve been profiling one group and every player on the roster this fall. Last week, we examined what should be a pretty impressive and deep collection of Orange defensive backs. We close with:
It wasn’t too long ago that Syracuse special teams was an afterthought. With no dedicated coordinator for the group, and disastrous results, it usually did more harm than good for the Orange — aside from punting, of course, which has actually been pretty rock solid for much of the last decade at least.
But since about 2015 when Steve Gregory was on staff, ‘Cuse has sort of morphed into a bit of “Special Teams U.” Without Gregory in year one of Dino Babers, they were fine on special teams. But over the last two years with Justin Lustig at the helm, they’ve become arguably the nation’s best in that department. And it showed last year as that and the resulting field position advantages helped guide Syracuse to a 10-win season.
Andre Szmyt, (Redshirt) Sophomore
Following up an impressive Lou Groza award-winning campaign won’t be easy for the record-setting Orange kicker. And in all actuality, we’d probably be fine with him not attempting 34 field goals again in 2019 (even if he’s able to make 30 of those once again). Those opportunities were in part born from red zone struggles, which held Syracuse’s offense back from its full potential. But Szmyt’s still an incredibly accurate kicker at any volume we may need.
Noah Nwosu, (Redshirt) Freshman
Nwosu’s unlikely to get a ton of work given Szmyt being entrenched as the team’s kicker and punter also already sorted out in the short term. But most of our best kickers/punters in recent years have earned scholarships over time and weren’t apparent right away, either. So even if we don’t see him this year, he’s worth watching out for later on.
Sterling Hofrichter, (Redshirt) Senior
Hof returns for one final run and remains one of the top punters in the ACC and all of the FBS. Along with a strong leg and long hangtime that assists the punt coverage team, he also pinned 26 punts inside the 20 last season to lead the conference. He’s likely playing on Sundays next year. For now, though, we’ll enjoy the advantage he helps provide both here and on kickoffs.
Nolan Cooney, (Redshirt) Junior
Cooney may not get much of an opportunity in terms of either punting or kicking at this point, but he plays a critical role as a holder in the meantime. Syracuse was 61-of-61 on extra points this past season — something at least partially attribute to Cooney.
Aaron Bolinsky, Sophomore
Losing scholarship long snapper Matt Keller to injury last year could’ve been devastating for SU. Instead, Bolinsky was able to step right in and start seven games without any real issue. He’s a guy who could potentially earn a scholarship down the road if his level of play remains high.
Mike Midkiff, Freshman
With luck, we won’t have to hear Midkiff’s name much/at all this season so long as Bolinsky stays healthy. But last year did serve as a stark reminder that you can always use more depth at positions like this one. Midkiff presents some interesting size at the position (6-foot-3), though likely needs to spend some time adding a little bit of weight from his current 190 pounds.
Joey Kelly, Freshman
Kelly’s rugby abilities could come in handy as a long-snapper. But for now, he’s in the same boat as Midkiff. He can add some weight in the meantime, and perhaps there are other areas where he can contribute while not snapping.
Sean Riley, Senior
Riley’s abilities as a receiver have sort of taken the headlines at this point, especially as opposing teams largely avoided him in 2018. Still, he averaged 13.6 yards per return taking back 16 punts — including one for a touchdown vs. UConn. On kickoffs, he got just 18 opportunities given teams avoiding him and the new kickoff rules, averaging only 20.8 yards. Still, he eats up all-purpose yards and remains a speedy and dangerous runner in the open field.
Nykeim Johnson, Junior
Johnson hasn’t been utilized a ton in the return man role — and may not again this year if we see his offensive workload go up. Last year, he returned one punt for 10 yards and one kick for 11. That doesn’t show off a ton of his speed, but it’s there if he transitions to more regular duties.
Following a year in which Syracuse was one of the top two special teams units in the country nearly all season, it’s tough to truly get “better.” However, with Lustig back to coach a group that returns pretty much everyone from 2018’s standout season, it’s possible that this one could. As mentioned above, it would be great to see Szmyt get fewer tries if only because it means the offense is probably executing better.
If there’s one place for potential improvement, it could be with regard to getting the most out of returns the few times they do happen. Punts are fine, but kickoffs left a little to be desired when actually run back. A few blocking tweaks could clear that up, as we know Riley’s more than capable from his efforts in 2017. Even without that, though, this is still potentially the best special teams unit in the country once again.