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ACC football 2021 position preview: Special teams

How high can Syracuse go on this particular list?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 01 East Carolina at NC State Photo by Jaylynn Nash/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been a long road to get here, but we’ve made it. After a few months, we’ve previewed every Syracuse Orange position group. And on top of that, we’ve also previewed every position group in the ACC.

So in case you missed things, backtrack here for Syracuse-specific previews: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers/tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs.

And if you’re interested in how SU stacks up vs. the rest of the ACC as well, here are all of those articles, too: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers/tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs.

But now, our conclusion:

ACC Football 2021 Special Teams Preview

Last year’s top performers

Bouncing around the various positions included within the larger special teams group, Pitt’s Alex Kessman hit 23 field goals last year, and was one of three ACC players to make at least 20 on the year. The other two were Miami’s Jose Borregales and Virginia Tech’s Brian Johnson. Georgia Tech’s Pressley Harvin III had the conference’s highest punting average at 48.02 per, but also “only” punted 48 times. Syracuse’s Nolan Cooney getting to nearly 45 yards punt on 74 tries was the tougher and perhaps more impressive feat — something that All-America voters also tended to agree with.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Orange’s Nykeim Johnson had the most punt return yards in the ACC last year with 169 on 12 attempts (also giving him the highest average of any ACC player with at least two returns. On kickoffs, Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert was tops by average with 26.88 yards per return on 16 tries, though he was not one of the three playesr in the league to take a kick back for a touchdown. That list was limited to Wake Forest’s Donavon Greene, NC State’s Zonovan Knight and Syracuse’s Trebor Pena.

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

Who will excel in 2021?

There are some top performers back this year, especially at kicker. On field goal duty, both Borregales (Miami) and Johnson (Virginia Tech) are back, as is Syracuse’s Andre Szmyt as he stares down various school records despite hitting nine of just 11 field goals last year. Nick Sciba is also back for Wake Forest, having hit 38 of his last 42 tries. There’s some shuffling in the conference at punter, but Miami’s Lou Hedley could be the best returning player there after he averaged 47.2 yards per punt on 49 attempts.

In terms of return men, Knight’s your best and most experienced bet on kickoffs and should handle those duties well for NC State yet again after his quality work there last year. Punt return-wise, you’re probably looking to another member of the Wolfpack, Thayer Thomas, who is the only experienced player to average 10 or more yards per punt return on at least two tries.

Top three units: 1. NC State, 2. Syracuse, 3. Miami

As mentioned above, State has two of the conference’s top return men back in action. And beyond that, they also bring back an experienced punter and kicker. Trenton Gill averaged nearly 45 yards per punt last year on 52 attempts, while Christopher Dunn hit 12 of 17 field goals in 2020 — a down season for him after nailing 21 of 24 the year before.

Syracuse doesn’t take the top spot here for a few reasons — namely the fact that they didn’t truly replace Justin Lustig with a full-time special teams staffer (so quality control coach Blair Cavanaugh takes on most of those duties), and they are hoping freshman James Williams is a capable stand-in for Nolan Cooney after serving as a bit of a understudy for a year. Miami has more field goal kicking and punting ability than most of the teams in the ACC, and enough skill players to plug in on returns to remove any potential concerns at those spots.

Bottom three units: 12. Louisville, 13. Georgia Tech, 14. Virginia

The Cards averaged just 38 yards per punt in 2020 — worst in the league — and now hit reset there anyway, as they do on punt returns as well. James Turner hit 13 of 15 field goals last year, which should be at least some cause for optimism. This isn’t a bad special teams unit for Louisville. Just one that has a little bit of uncertainty.

Georgia Tech’s big challenge will be replacing Harvin after a standout career punting, but field goals have been a miserable part of their overall game of late, with just six makes on 16 tries in the last two years. They’ve made a roster change there with a a Tennessee transfer (Brent Cimaglia) taking over those duties. But this still looks rough. Virginia hits reset all over special teams after not faring that well to begin with there. So perhaps change winds up being a good thing given the recent lack of results.

Virginia v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Top three punters in the ACC:

  1. Lou Hedley, Miami
  2. Trenton Gill, NC State
  3. Kirk Christodoulou, Pitt

Top three kickers in the ACC:

  1. Nick Sciba, Wake Forest
  2. Andre Szmyt, Syracuse
  3. Brian Johnson, Virginia Tech

Top three return men in the ACC:

  1. Zonovan Knight, NC State
  2. Thayer Thomas, NC State
  3. Taylor Morin, Wake Forest

Where does Syracuse rank?

We mentioned it above — they’re second in the league right now. While Lustig and Cooney’s departures are concerned, there’s reason to believe that Pena will be just fine on returns and Szmyt remains one of the better kickers in the Power Five. The biggest questions come from whether James Williams is up to snuff (would bet yes) and whether the Orange offense can actually move the ball enough to give Szmyt more opportunities to put some points on the board. Swapping a full-time special teams coach for a quality control coach may not sound like the most comforting transition. However, Cavanaugh’s experience within the program should provide what’s needed to prevent much of a drop-off here.