Orange Watch: Syracuse football turning into a modern day ‘Punter U’

Syracuse's Riley Dixon punts the ball against Boston College. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

Item: With the recent free agent signing of 2020 Syracuse punter Nolan Cooney, and if he makes the 2021 New Orleans Saints roster and Riley Dixon and Sterling Hofrichter keep their present jobs with the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons, respectively, then ex-Syracuse players would comprise almost ten percent (9.38%) of the NFL’s punting fraternity.

Lost among all the great players produced at Syracuse who went on to the professional ranks, is the fact that the Orangemen have had punting specialists over eight decades, from the tenure of Ben Schwartzwalder all the way to the present Dino Babers era.

Here’s the list in reverse chronological order of the 13 players who led Syracuse in punting (season(s) noted in parenthesis), and who went on to play (or attempted to play) in either the NFL or CFL:

  • Nolan Cooney (2020)-Cooney signed an undrafted free agent contract with the New Orleans Saints on May 1, 2021. An honorable mention All-American and third-team all-ACC selection in 2020, his 3,314 total punting yards led the ACC.
  • Sterling Hofrichter (2016-19)-Atlanta Falcons 2020-present. As a rookie, Hofrichter punted 56 times in his initial season, averaging 42.5 yards a kick. 17 other NFL punters had 56 or more punts in 2020.
  • Riley Dixon (2013-15)-Denver Broncos 2016-17, New York Giants 2018-present. Dixon punted 65 times for the Giants in 2020, averaging 44.8 yards per kick. Just five other NFL punters who attempted 65 or more kicks had a better average last season.
  • Brendan Carney (2003-06)-Baltimore Ravens 2007. Carney took part in the Ravens training camp in 2007, but was released before the season.
  • Mike Shafer (1999-2002)-St. Louis Rams 2003, Houston Texans 2003. Shafer failed to make an NFL roster in 2003, ending up handling the placekicking duties for the Rhein Fire of the NFL’s European League in 2004.
  • Pat O’Neill (1990-93)-New England Patriots 1994-95, Chicago Bears 1996. Playing a 25 game NFL career, 24 of which were with the Patriots, O’Neill was 1-for-1 in career field goals and passing attempts in addition to his punting duties, named to the 1994 NFL all-rookie team.
  • Bernie Ruoff (1973-75)-Winnipeg Blue Bombers 1975-79, Hamilton Tiger Cats 1980-87, B.C. Lions 1988. Ruoff holds the CFL record for the longest field goal, 56-yards in 1984, in addition to the most punts in a game (22 in 1984) and the most punting yardage in one game (1,054 in 1984), over a 19-year pro career.
  • George Jakowenko (1969-1970)-Oakland Raiders 1974, Buffalo Bills 1976. In just a 17 game NFL career, Jakowenko finished 12-of-17 in his field goal attempts, and was the first of twelve Bills players to wear jersey number 5 in team history.

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  • Art Thoms (1968)-Oakland Raiders 1969-1975, Philadelphia Eagles 1976. A first-round draft choice by SU grad Al Davis and the Raiders in 1969, Thoms never punted in the NFL, but did return a fumble for a touchdown in 1974.
  • Tom Gilburg (1958-1960)-Baltimore Colts 1961-65. Gilburg punted 232 times for the Colts over five seasons, averaging 41.4 yards per kick, good for 26th best (out of 57 punters) in Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts team history.
  • Tom Stephens (1957)-Boston Patriots 1960-64. A member of the original Patriots team in 1960, Stephens never punted in one of his 49 AFL games, but did catch five touchdown passes. He went on to a 23-year career as athletic director at Curry College (Milton, Mass.) before passing away at age 82 in 2018.
  • Jim Ridlon (1956)-San Francisco 49ers 1957-1962, Dallas Cowboys 1963-64. Jim Ridlon was a renowned sculptor, 35-year Syracuse professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, a former broadcast partner of ours at WSYR Radio from 1982-1990, and a genuine great person who shared his knowledge with us on many occasions. Jim did not punt in the NFL exclusively playing in the defensive secondary, and had nine career interceptions including one for a touchdown with the Cowboys in 1964, his final pro season.
  • Avatus Stone (1950-51)-Ottawa Roughriders 1953-56, Montreal Alouettes 1957, Baltimore Colts 1958. After a stellar five-year, all-league career in the CFL where he finished second in the East Division in punting each season, Stone played in one game for the Colts in 1958 with one punt for 28-yards. Stone died in 2000 at age 69.

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About Brad Bierman 848 Articles
Now in his sixth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.