We wrap up our look back at the 2021 Syracuse Orange football season with SU’s special teams. Why the delay, you ask? Well, a lot’s changed on special teams already in the last week with Dino Babers hiring a new special teams coordinator (Bob Ligashesky) and Andre Szmyt announcing his return. Plus we had two big men’s basketball games this week that also grabbed attention.
If you missed the offensive side of the ball (quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers & offensive line) or defense (defensive line, linebackers and secondary), make sure to catch up. But now we’re closing with:
For several years, special teams had been a strength for Syracuse football thanks in large part to Justin Lustig. The former Orange assistant served three successful years on Babers’s staff, and turned the special teams unit into one of the best in the country. Its punting, kicking and coverage abilities were a bit part of 2018’s surge. And it kept things competitive during parts of 2019 despite failures elsewhere.
Of course, Lustig wound up heading to Vanderbilt following the Orange’s disastrous 2020 campaign. So Syracuse had to start over — but this time without a dedicated special teams coach or All-American punter Nolan Cooney. “What could go wrong?” we all asked, naively.
Everything could, apparently.
Syracuse finished the 2021 regular season ranked 123rd in SP+’s special teams rankings. Their PAT percentage was in the bottom third of the country, and same with field goals. The team’s punting — a strength for over a decade at this point — was ranked 128th in the FBS by average. Kickoffs were below average. Punt coverage was below average. The only things that weren’t completely terrible were punt and kick returns, and kick return coverage, but even those were just about average.
You can survive all of that when you’re a good or great team. When you’re a fringe bowl team, it’s a backbreaker. As we saw with the Orange this year, their backs were indeed broken by the issues that plagued special teams late in specific games. You can point to punting issues vs. Rutgers and more directly, a missed field goal vs. Clemson, as specifically causing defeats. A win in either game would’ve meant SU went bowling.
This isn’t to hammer the individual players involved either, though. It was clear that injury issues hampered punter James Williams when he was actually on the field. Former All-American Andre Szmyt simply looked like a shadow of his former self, though despite accuracy struggles, he also hit a game-winner against Liberty.
The return game even had its brighter moments throughout the eventually doomed 2021 campaign. Before his injury, Trebr Pena’s punt return average (7.28 yards per) would have ranked around the top 30 in the country. His replacement, Courtney Jackson, would’ve been the national leader there with more attempts. He had just six on the year, but averaged 18.3 per, including a touchdown against Boston College.
On kick returns, Pena and Cooper Lutz showed themselves quite capable at times, though also possessed questionable decision-making when it came to whether or not it was worth just downing the ball. With college rules that give you a start at your own 25-yard line in place, there’s extra motivation to avoid trying to run it out of your own end zone. Yet SU did so repeatedly, and to its own detriment.
The mishaps on special teams were obvious to everyone involved by week two of the season, so it’s sensible that Ligashesky — a special teams coaching veteran with several decades of experience — was brought aboard so quickly. We may never know for sure, but there’s potential that his presence was part of what brought Szmyt back into the fold after he’d initially opted to depart this offseason.
Both will play major factors for Syracuse going forward, as will the return of Trebor Pena. Because as much as 2021 was rough for special teams, it did grant a ton of needed experience for younger contributors, while also showcasing just how badly this team needs a dedicated coordinator on that front. Now, Ligashesky gets to hit the ground running with a veteran group — including two promising return men (Jackson, Pena), the best kicker in program history, and hopefully a healthy punter in James Williams.
I don’t want to say things will immediately go back to the way they were here. But there’s a lot to like about a special teams rebound already, at least on paper.
And if you missed the other positional grades, check all of those out here: