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Syracuse football 2021 position preview: Special teams

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Special Teams U gets back to work, with some changes, however.

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

We’re so very close to the start of the 2021 Syracuse Orange football season, whether you like it or not. And in advance of kickoff, we’ve been previewing every position group on the roster from quarterbacks all the way to the secondary.

Last, but certainly not least, is the best position group on campus for several years running. Today, we’re talking about:

Special Teams

While there’s been plenty of inconsistent play for Syracuse in recent years, the one constant has been special teams. While punting had been a strength for quite a while, the entire Orange special teams group really hit its stride once Justin Lustig arrived in 2018, According to Football Outsiders, Syracuse finished 16th in special teams efficiency in 2018, 55th in 2019 and 14th in 2020. The numbers look even better when you utilize the old S&P ratings.

But now, there are changes for Syracuse heading into 2021. Lustig left for what’s essentially the same role at Vanderbilt. Though SU graduated an NFL-bound punter (Sterling Hofrichter) two years ago, they still managed to find another with All-American credentials in Nolan Cooney last year. Now they’ll hope for similar success from James Williams — or at least hope they’re not leaning on the punt unit as much as they did last year (74 punts in just 11 games). But of course, there’s also more to special teams than just punters, though.

Kickers

Andre Szmyt, (Redshirt) Junior

Szymt needs no introduction whatsoever. Since bursting onto the Orange roster a few years ago, he’s won a Lou Groza Award, challenged every kicking accomplishment in the school’s record book and one would think he’s probably going pro after this season. He’s already just three back of Cole Murphy for the all-time field goal lead at SU, despite only hitting nine during all of 2020. Hopefully ‘Cuse is in field goal range a bit more this year than they were last.

Punters

James Williams, Freshman

Williams has a lot to live up to as a punter at Syracuse. Since 2013, the Orange have had incredible consistency at the position going right from Riley Dixon to Sterling Hofrichter (both currently in the NFL), to then an All-American year of Nolan Cooney. Now, they’re handing what may be the country’s most consistent punting unit to Williams, a high-quality high school punter in his own right. He doesn’t need to be perfect in year one, but the hope is that last year’s redshirt sets him up to succeed even more in his debut.

Colby Barker, (Redshirt) Senior

The former Ohio State lacrosse player is basically the team’s only backup option at both punter and kicker, which may seem a little unsettling after several years of having at least a handful of backups at both positions. He definitely has athleticism, but it’s also been a while since he punted or kicked. With luck, we don’t have to test him too much.

Long Snapper

Aaron Bolinsky, Junior

Another key part of this special teams group overall? Bolinsky, who stepped in due to Matt Keller’s injury in 2018, and has played in every game since. He’s been a great blocker, largely error-free, and has quietly been one of the team’s most important players in recent seasons. Having a steady hand up front will be especially crucial this year with a freshman punter taking up the role.

Joey Kelly, (Redshirt) Freshman

Kelly’s yet to appear, but he’s your likely backup just in case Bolinsky is unavailable. He’s been on the travel squad, so is at least prepared for the gameday environment in case of emergency.

Mike Midkiff, (Redshirt) Freshman

It’s unlikely we see Midkiff this year, but Syracuse does have plenty of long snappers available if needed. He’s another pretty athletic player on this special teams unit, too, with experience playing both basketball and baseball as well.

Returners

Trebor Pena, Freshman

Avoiding getting ahead of ourselves, Pena looked great in limited action last year. He averaged over 32 yards per return on seven attempts, and even ran back one for a touchdown. Now, we can’t just assume every return is a threat to wind up in the end zone. But realistically, the speedy wideout is a great option to have on kicks — and maybe punts as well if SU opts to use him there, too.

Ja’Had Carter, Freshman

It’s anyone’s guess who winds up with either punting duties or the secondary kicking duties. But Carter could be one option for Syracuse. He played on both sides of the ball in high school and was a sure-handed receiver. That could be enough to give him a look if SU doesn’t plug in one of the many (unproven) wideouts on the roster.

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For the first time in years, Syracuse doesn’t have a full-time special teams coach, which potentially creates some concern around whether or not the Orange can continue the same success they’ve had of late. We’ve seen quality punting without a full-time staffer handling special teams, mind you. But it hasn’t really been a fully successful special teams group top to bottom without one in some time.

The positive, however, is that Blair Cavanaugh is back as a special teams quality control assistant and has been in that role since 2019. So if nothing else, there’s not just experience on the roster, but experience at SU. While it’s not a one-to-one comparison with a full-time coach, it’s potentially close enough to prevent much of a drop-off.