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Syracuse 2021 spring football preview: Special teams

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Beginning the post-Lustig era...

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

While Syracuse Orange spring football continues, we’ve reached the end of our position preview series. If we get a media guide and/or updated roster, we’ll be able to dive into things a little bit more in the coming weeks. And same goes for any potential spring game (TBD).

Last time out, we took a look at the Orange secondary and how last year’s experience could pay dividends while the group replaces three players bound for the NFL. This time around, we’re taking a deeper dive on special teams — one of the strengths of the program in recent seasons — and how this offseason’s roster and staff changes will make an impact.

In case you missed any of the previous pieces, check out our previews on the linebackers, defensive line, coaching staff, offensive line, quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers/tight ends. Now;

Can special teams stay special without Justin Lustig?

Who’s gone?

Perhaps most crucially, special teams coordinator Justin Lustig has departed for Vanderbilt. His arrival three years ago was a key part of Syracuse’s drastic improvement on special teams, and losing him can’t be discounted as we hope to keep up that standard now.

Following a season in which he received All-America and All-ACC honors, Nolan Cooney is off to the NFL, potentially. His 44.8 yards per punt was a top-15 figure in the country despite nearly double the number of tries (74) as most competitors. His kickoff numbers were solid as well, and Syracuse will be tasked with replacing him there as well.

Two of the last three Orange punters have been selected in the draft, and even if Cooney doesn’t continue that streak, he’ll get a shot to catch on with a team as a free agent. That’s pretty cool.

Primary return man Nykeim Johnson’s transferred out too, as did assumed heir apparent Jawhar Jordan.

Who’s on campus?

Former No. 4 punter recruit in the country James Williams is poised to take over the mantle of all-conference-player-bound-for-the-NFL from Cooney after redshirting last year. He could very well take on kickoff duties as well, though that could also go to Andre Szmyt or one of the walk-on kickers (Brandon Peskin or Noah Nwosu).

Speaking of Szmyt, he’s back as well with an eye on the Orange record books before likely being another special teams player that gets selected in the NFL Draft.

Trebor Pena is the most likely player to take on returns. We’ll get into that a bit more below. Aaron Bolinsky returns to handle long-snapping duties, though Joey Kelly and Mike Midkiff are also still on campus.

Who’s arriving this summer?

No one to our knowledge. Syracuse doesn’t recruit players specifically to handle return duties, and is unlikely to have two scholarship kickers or two scholarship punters on the roster for more than a season, just to account for one graduating.

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

What sort of impact does losing Justin Lustig create?

Hopefully none, really, since special teams play has been a core part of SU’s success in recent years where it’s happened. Lustig wasn’t replaced directly, but Jeff Hammerschmidt comes aboard to take over many of those duties as a special teams analyst. Hammerschmidt last coached with the New York Jets, but has plenty of college experience as well.

Key for Syracuse will be keeping aspect of Lustig’s approach intact. Since he arrived, the team’s been opportunistic on both punt and kick coverage, and better on punt and kick returns. The punting game has excelled and bringing in a new punter hopefully doesn’t lead to much of a step back (it didn’t last year). Field goals are hopefully on auto-pilot as well.

If we notice a difference at all, it probably comes in the margins — blocking and coverage, in particular.

How will James Williams fare replacing Nolan Cooney?

Related to the above, that’s a big part of Hammerschmidt’s task of keeping things afloat. Syracuse hasn’t experienced a major dropoff with the last three punter transitions, so we’ll need Williams to do the same. Of course, we’d love to just have him punt less, since that means the offense is working. But quality punting is a big part of this team’s defensive identity (forcing opponents to face a long field and take more risks through the air, playing right into the secondary’s strength generating takeaways).

At a baseline, would be good to see Williams at around 43 yards per punt and able to pin teams inside the 20 with some frequency. Redshirting for a year — as Sterling Hofrichter did while Riley Dixon was still on campus — could pay dividends and have him ready to go right off the bat.

Who handles returns now?

Late in the season, it sure looked like Trebor Pena was ready to take over returns, and now, he’ll probably get to. On just seven kick returns in 2021, Pena averaged 32 yards per and scored a touchdown. While he didn’t return any punts, it’s not farfetched to think he could take over there as well.

Even if he’s not averaging over 30 yards per kick, he seemed to have the vision last year to find seams and make things happen quickly. Better field position would certainly make things easier for an offense we know nothing about at the moment.

Andre Szmyt’s return to form?

This may seem like an overreaction to last year — or maybe just an overly high standard established during Szmyt’s first season. But after hitting 88% of his 34 tries in 2018, Szmyt then made 85% of 20 attempts in 2019 and 82% of 11 field goals last year. Obviously more tries could’ve potentially fix those percentages. And he’s still making them at a higher clip than most college kickers by far. But... something just seemed a bit off last season, even in limited chances.

Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect any kicker nailing 88% of his tries, no matter how many attempts he has. But it’ll be interesting to see how he looks here in year four, with SU’s record books in sight and hopefully less weight on his shoulders to handle this team’s scoring load.