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Syracuse football 2020 position preview: Special teams

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Replacing Sterling Hofrichter won’t be an easy task...

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Wake Forest v Syracuse Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Honestly, I didn’t think we’d actually be able to preview every position group before the season was postponed. But somehow, we made it to the end of our Syracuse Orange position previews for 2020.

In advance of said Syracuse season, we’ve taken a weekly look at each position group on the roster, and every player that may or may not make an impact this year. Last time around, we looked at the Orange’s star-studded secondary and how they could benefit from a switch to the 3-3-5. To close things out, we preview what’s been SU’s strongest position group for years now:

Special Teams

Special teams play has become a calling card for Syracuse under coach Dino Babers, and especially since Justin Lustig arrived to coach the unit. We’ve seen two (!!!) punters drafted since 2016. We’ve seen Syracuse’s first Lou Groza Award winner. And we’ve seen special teams play a major role in SU winning a field position battle that was integral in 2018’s 10-win season.

The good news for 2020 is that Andre Szmyt is still kicking, and Lustig’s still coaching special teams. But replacing Sterling Hofrichter is going to be no easy feat. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the top-rated punter in the FBS last year, and was around the top third in the country on kickoffs. That’s not easy production to replace, as the Orange are going to learn this year. But we have replaced star punters before, even if the task admittedly looks tough.

Pittsburgh v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Punters/Kickers

Andre Szmyt, (Redshirt) Junior

The former Lou Groza Award winner followed up a record-setting campaign by going 17-of-20 on field goals and 39-of-40 on extra points. It may not have lit the world on fire, but he still did as much as he could with what was given. Entering his third season as the team’s starting kicker, he’s still very much one of the country’s top kickers and has every chance to compete for another Groza Award (though we also hope he doesn’t need to be leaned on as much with what’s hopefully a more effective red zone attack).

James Williams, Freshman

After four excellent years of Hofrichter at punter, we’re hopefully getting four with Williams now too. The Georgia native was a five-star punter according to Kohl’s Kicking, and isn’t too shabby of a place kicker either. That pedigree checks out. Now we just wait and see if he redshirts or not. I’d say it’s unlikely, though the next name on this list could potentially surprise.

Nolan Cooney, (Redshirt) Senior

Cooney’s been a fixture as a holder, and has even manned kickoffs here and there, too. He could very well handle kickoff duties this year either way, but the punter role is the one that holds the most intrigue. Cooney has never attempted a punt at SU, but neither has Williams. If Cooney can even be a reasonable imitation of Hofrichter for one year, it might be enough to redshirt Williams and keep him around an extra year.

Noah Nwosu, (Redshirt) Sophomore

It seems unlikely we see Nwosu this year, but the former soccer player at least has a year of college football under his belt after redshirting last season. He can both punt and kick, as is the case with most of these guys. The versatility could be helpful in a pinch.

Brandon Peskin, Freshman

The walk-on is almost certainly redshirting this season, but does bring a solid resume on paper, sitting just outside the top 50 in Kohl’s Kicking rankings for both kickers and punters. He could be a player to watch down the road.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 18 Pitt at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Long Snappers

Aaron Bolinsky, Junior

Since taking over as SU’s long snapper a couple years ago, Bolinsky’s performed very well in the role, and served as a big part of the success of both Szmyt and Hofrichter. His experience now should help set up the new punter — whether it’s Williams or Cooney — for success in year one.

Joey Kelly, (Redshirt) Freshman

Kelly was Bolinsky’s backup last season, but never appeared in a game, so he redshirted. Barring an injury to Bolinsky, he’s not necessarily slated to be on the field a ton in 2020 either, though other roles could potentially be found on special teams given his rugby and linebacker experience in high school.

Mike Midkiff, (Redshirt) Freshman

Midkiff’s a pretty athletic long-snapper (played three sports in high school, runs a 4.81-second 40-yard dash), and that could lead to him factoring in elsewhere on special teams. Otherwise, it’s always good to have capable reserves, as Bolinsky’s own ascension proved back in 2018.

Punt/Kick Returns

Nykeim Johnson, Senior

We’ve only seen Johnson handle returns in spurts at Syracuse (one PR and six KRs last year), with mixed returns while playing second-fiddle to Sean Riley. Now, with Riley gone, he has the potential to take over both the starting punt and kick return roles — that is, if the two players listed below him here don’t supplant him on the depth chart. March’s two-deep already had an “OR” between Johnson and Jordan on kicks, and he was listed behind Williams for punt return duty. He’ll still have a big role to play, either way.

Trill Williams, Junior

Trill has no formal punt return experience, though he technically has a punt return touchdown from 2018, courtesy of a fumble. The speed and field vision he could bring to the table could be a great shift for the Orange following a season that seemed to take a step back from 2018’s success in the punt return department. It also helps that Williams isn’t going to be relied on as heavily in the passing game as Johnson is set to.

Jawhar Jordan, (Redshirt) Freshman

Even with limited exposure to what Jordan could do last year, it’s a no-brainer to try and fit him into kick returns given his blazing speed. As a reminder, he returned four kicks for 114 yards (28.5 yards per try), which would’ve been the fourth-best average in the ACC if extrapolated out to a full season. Adding his offensive and special teams numbers, he averaged nearly 16 yards every time he touched the football. It’s no knock on Johnson, but it seems likely that “OR” is getting erased so Dino Babers can get Jordan on the field as much as possible.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Boston College at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As mentioned, there’s a lot of change coming, and it’s likely the biggest test Lustig has faced as the Orange’s special teams coordinator. Hof was an immensely valuable player and presence for SU, and you can’t just replace that over night (Sterling even took time to do that following Riley Dixon’s departure). But even if SU isn’t performing at an absolutely elite level in year one without Hofrichter, they can create some solid building blocks going forward.

Where things will get particularly interesting is the return game, as alluded to above. While Sean Riley was a veteran on punts and kicks, last year didn’t go too well and he was scoring out in the 50s (out of 100) for both, per PFF. Inserting a dynamic runner like Jordan could be the move needed to shake things up a bit there, even if punting needs a year to reset. With luck, we’re not punting nearly as much as last year (when Syracuse punted a not-so-nice 69 times, for their highest per-game clip since 2016), so the problem could also be mitigated a bit there, too.