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Syracuse football 2020 spring preview: Special teams

We’re actually changing up quite a bit here.

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The Syracuse Orange football team added 23 new players this offseason — thanks to recruiting and the transfer portal. And with those additions, we turned the page to the 2020 season... despite the fact that kickoff isn’t until September (hopefully).

Spring practice has officially been cancelled amid coronavirus fears, so that’s not necessarily going to help this team with new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Still, we finished up the last couple position group previews anyway, focusing on the players currently enrolled (and who were participating in spring ball before things went sideways).

Last week, we dug into SU’s defensive backs and how the group could benefit from a scheme change. This time around:

Can special teams remain a strength for the Orange amid significant change?

Who’s gone?

Critically, four-year starter and (likely) future NFL punter Sterling Hofrichter leaves following an impressive career with the Orange. Sean Riley, who returned punts and kicks, has also been lost to graduation.

Who’s on campus?

Despite the losses above, there’s still a lot of talent around. Andre Szmyt is one of the best kickers in college football, and returns for what’s likely another record-breaking season. Noah Nwosu and Nolan Cooney are back as key cogs in SU’s special teams unit, as are long snappers Aaron Bolinsky, Mike Midkiff and Joey Kelly.

There’s also a slew of players that could take over return duties, which we’ll get to below.

Who’s arriving this summer?

James Williams is the punter-to-be, and hopefully carries on the impressive tradition the position’s had at Syracuse of late.

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How steep is the drop-off going to be without Sterling Hofrichter?

Not going to lie: it’s going to be tough for Syracuse to replace Hofrichter, who was an all-conference player and impressive overall athlete. As a senior, Hof averaged nearly 44 yards per punt and put 31 of those inside the 20 (and 11 inside the 10). While not his main role at Syracuse, Hofrichter could also keep field goals with proficiency. The guy had a 52-yarder after all — something that likely helps out his draft stock a bit.

Now, how does Syracuse replace that? Williams won’t be expected to be Hof right away, but the veteran punter’s abilities to pin opponents back did some incredible work for the defense (and was something we were huge beneficiaries of in 2018). Williams is unlikely to be performing at an all-conference level right off the bat, but if SU’s new defensive installment is going to go well, he’ll need to look ready right out of the gate.

Can we use Andre Szmyt less for good reasons this year?

Going into 2019, we wanted to use Andre Szmyt less than we did in 2018, when he went 30-of-34 en route to a Lou Groza Award win. We got our wish, but not because Syracuse’s offense was executing better in the red zone. A lack of opportunities meant he had just 20 tries last season (and he made 17 of them).

This year, it would be great to see him try somewhere between 17 and 20 again — but as a result of the hopefully improved Orange offense doing a better job executing inside the 20. That’s been a major issue for SU even dating back to before Dino Babers’s tenure, so we’ll believe it when we see it. Still, Szmyt has some career marks in his sights as well this season or next. in just two seasons, he’s already hit 47 field goals, which puts him just 12 behind Cole Murphy for most in school history.

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Who’s replacing Sean Riley returning punts and kicks?

Based on what we saw a little last year, there are two primary names here, in Nykeim Johnson and Jawhar Jordan. Johnson didn’t necessarily look great in his limited reps returning last year, averaging 19.17 yards on six kickoffs, and losing two yards on his only punt return. Jordan, on the other hand, looked the part a bit more. He averaged 28.5 yards on four kick returns and will undoubtedly get a shot to make that a full-time responsibility this season.

Other names could emerge here, and if Jordan winds up with a larger role as a running back, receiver or both, perhaps his return duties are diminished. However, it seems unnecessary to avoid putting the ball in his hands whenever possible. And if you have a return man that can hand your offense great field position more often than not (or least force teams to kick away from him), might as well put him out there.

What’s it going to take to extend Justin Lustig’s streak of strong special teams performances?

We’ve touched on most of it above, in one way or another. Szmyt is set, as is the long snapper position. This comes down to whether Williams can prove effective in year one while learning on the job (assuming Nolan Cooney doesn’t take on the role and give him a year to acclimate), and if we see the return game take a step forward after Riley.

I’m pretty sold on the latter question, admittedly, because SU’s return game seemed to decline quite a bit in 2019 and a change-up could be exactly what they need (especially if Jordan’s involved). On the punting situation, the hope is that you don’t need to punt as much as we did last year. But even something that looks like early seasons from guys like Hof or Riley Dixon (averaging closer to 42 yards per punt) could be enough if Williams or Cooney isn’t leaned on as heavily to make up for offensive ineffectiveness.

In case you missed our previous spring previews: