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Syracuse football 2020 season report card: Special teams

Special Teams U: Similarly special, even without last year’s top player.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the end! Before we send this accursed Syracuse Orange football season out to sea for good, we’ve been recapping each position group with our annual TNIAAM report cards series. If you missed any of the ones before the finale, here’s that list (with grades) to catch up:

Finally, fittingly, we wrap things up today with...

Special Teams

While the secondary has been a point of emphasis in recent seasons, special teams has been truly special for Syracuse since Dino Babers arrived — after years of a pretty rough go there. A lot of credit goes to assistant head coach Justin Lustig there, as he’s really spearheaded this surge. But the players repeatedly executing year after year has been the biggest part, and it’s impressive to see no matter how much turnover we seem to experience.

Even with few things going right for SU in 2020, one thing that did was special teams. Bill C.’s SP+ ratings put the Orange special teams unit at 10th in the country (worth pointing out that PFF said they were 80th, but clearly some very different methodology utilized by both). And the biggest potential problem area — punting — wound up being just as good as it has been.

Losing Sterling Hofrichter, an NFL-level punter the second he walked onto SU’s campus, could’ve made things difficult. Instead, plugging in redshirt senior walk-on Nolan Cooney resulted in similarly great results. Syracuse was 16th in the nation in punting average despite punting more than anyone else at the FBS level (74 times — though that was not the highest per game total). Cooney earned All-ACC honors after the season, while PFF had him rated as the country’s No. 3 punter. And if that wasn’t enough, we have another great punter waiting in the wings in James Williams, who redshirted this past season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Syracuse at Pitt Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On kickoffs, Cooney was also top 20 in the country with an average of 63.8 yards per. Admittedly, things didn’t look great when SU tried onside kicks. But I’m not going to ding anyone too much for a rarely-utilized aspect of their job.

In the kicking game, Andre Szmyt put in another solid season, though he also remains less and less involved in the Orange’s ability to score given the team’s struggles to get anywhere near the goal line. Szmyt was 9 for 11 on field goal tries, and 23 of 24 on extra points. He’s still on pace to own every career kicking record at Syracuse. It’s just the team’s own offensive issues that have slowed his once-torrid pace to start his time here.

As evidenced by Nykeim Johnson receiving second-team All-ACC honors as a specialist, he fared reasonably well on returns this year. His 14.1 yards per punt return would’ve been tops in the ACC had he hit the minimum number (he was a couple short) and his kick return numbers weren’t too shabby at over 23 yards per. However, the bigger focus there would be on the future with Trebor Pena handling duties on at least kicks — if not punts too, since Johnson’s elected to enter his name into the transfer portal this offseason.

Pena had seven kick returns this year, but averaged over 32 yards per after taking on to the house vs. NC State (in what remains one of the weirdest calls I’ve ever seen, since commentators seemed barely phased by the return until he was basically in the end zone). He’ll likely take over those duties next season. TBD if he’s also in charge of punt returns, though, or if those are handed to Jawhar Jordan (who we thought would be handling return duties this season, but it never really materialized).

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

Syracuse blocked two punts on the year (tied for 15th in the country), and caused enough havoc on returns with a few forced fumbles to make up for the middle-of-the-road performances on opposing yards per return. They didn’t necessarily have the sort of gunner we’ve seen in previous years, but the guys who handled coverage duty still performed well and a real depth chart next year could see a return to form there.

This offseason will have at least a few big questions to answer. Most importantly: Does another program finally lure Lustig away? He’s regularly seen as one of the top special teams coaches in the country, and his reputation seems likely to eventually earn him a higher paying job. Him leaving doesn’t crater the unit, but if it comes to pass, special teams should be a major emphasis for any new hire.

The other big question will be around punting and how Williams replaces Cooney assuming the latter player calls it a career. We’ve had numerous punters over the years and it’s been a strength for most of the last 15 years. Still, there’s always that slight concern each season that the streak of success runs out. Here’s hoping next year — when we’ll probably need a little help to make a bowl game — isn’t that time.

Grade: A-