The Syracuse Orange improved in a lot of spots for 2018, but special teams was critical in terms of setting the offense (previously fast but also inefficient) to score the second-most points per game in the school’s modern history. Having a Lou Groza Award winner was pretty nice too, as Andre Szmyt went from little-known walk-on whose name we couldn’t pronounce, to scholarship player and the best kicker in the country. It’s impressive how many crucially important special-teamers at SU have started out as walk-ons, no?
Along with our Syracuse position group previews each week, we’ve also taken 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? Last time out, we projected what the conference’s defensive backs will look like. This week, we close with:
ACC Football 2019 Special Teams Preview
Last year’s top performers
Syracuse’s Sterling Hofrichter was second in the conference in terms of average, and first in terms of pinning kicks inside the 20, rightfully taking home All-ACC honors in the process. He was one of four ACC players to average 42 yards or more per punt, along with Florida State’s Logan Tyler, Virginia Tech’s Oscar Bradburn and NC State’s A.J. Cole.
As mentioned, Szmyt was the country’s top kicker, hitting 30-of-34 field goals while going a perfect 61-for-61 on extra points. Interestingly, three of the ACC’s top four kickers in terms of accuracy were freshmen last year. Szmyt was joined by fellow freshmen NC State’s Christopher Dunn and Wake Forest’s Nick Sciba as the three kickers to hit over 85% of their field goals on the year.
Sean Riley was the conference’s best punt returner by average (16.38), but it was Wake Forest’s Greg Dortch that had two touchdowns on 25 returns. Pitt’s Maurice Ffrench led the ACC in both kick return average and kick return TDs with two. Virginia’s Joe Reed was close behind in terms of average, however, at 27.19 (vs. Ffrench’s 27.35 per kick return).
Who will excel in 2019?
Well, Szmyt’s back and he’s poised to be the top kicker in the league once again — though Dunn and Sciba should also be plenty capable of carrying their respective field goal units as well. Returning kickers like Brian Delaney (Virginia) and Alex Kessman (Pitt) are no slouches. SU was unfortunate enough to have to find out the hard way with Kessman last year...
Punting-wise, Hofrichter and Bradburn were your two best players last year, and though Tyler was the best in the way of average, he wasn’t the most effective punter either as pointed out by David Hale’s own ACC special teams analysis. Maggio returns for Wake, and should improve as a senior — though for the Deacs’ sake, with fewer than 77 punts in 2019.
Again, a lot of the top contributors are back at the return spots too. Riley, Rodjay Burns (Louisville) and Dazz Newsome (North Carolina) were the lone players to average more than 15 yards per return. The top three kick returners by average (and five of the top six) are also back, led by Ffrench and Reed.
Top three units: 1. Syracuse, 2. Virginia Tech, 3. Wake Forest
Syracuse having the top punter and kicker puts them over the top already, but a strong coverage team and return man in Riley make it a very well-rounded group. Bradburn’s strong as a punter, and Brian Johnson has some room to improve at kicker. Terius Wheatley was actually one of the ACC’s better kick returners on average despite not getting a lot of opportunities last year. With more this time around, he could put up much bigger numbers.
Wake’s punting and kicking situations are probably second-best in the league, in aggregate. But replacing Dortch is no easy task given his various talents as a ball-carrier for Wake.
Bottom three units: 12. Clemson, 13. Florida State, 14. Boston College
Clemson’s special teams was pretty bad last year, and has just some potential to improve this season (not that it truly matters given the level of talent everywhere else on the field for the Tigers). As mentioned, FSU’s punting isn’t as good as the numbers show, and Ricky Aguayo was inconsistent at best last season kicking field goals. Boston College loses returner Michael Walker, and struggled both punting and kicking last year, so that might just continue.
Top three kickers in ACC:
- Andre Szmyt, Syracuse
- Christopher Dunn, NC State
- Nick Sciba, Wake Forest
Top three punters in ACC:
- Sterling Hofrichter, Syracuse
- Oscar Bradburn, Virginia Tech
- Dom Maggio, Wake Forest
Top three return men in ACC:
- Maurice Ffrench, Pittsburgh
- Joe Reed, Virginia
- Sean Riley, Syracuse
Where does Syracuse rank?
First, obviously. Since Justin Lustig’s arrived, the Orange have transformed themselves into Special Teams U, winning the field position battle big last year and ranking near the top of the country in terms of punt/kick coverage, kicking and punting (while teams simply avoiding kicking to Sean Riley, for the most part). With pretty much every key cog back from last year (save a couple gunners, that is), this should be a well-oiled machine once more... that hopefully attempts fewer field goals due to better success in the red zone.