Position Breakdown: Special Teams — 2021 Syracuse Football preview

Syracuse kicker Andre Szmyt
Syracuse kicker Andre Szmyt attempts a field goal against Pitt. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a unit-by-unit preview each week over the summer. This week, we’re breaking down Syracuse’s special teams.

Projected Starters

Punter: James Williams. Ranked as the No. 4 punter in the 2020 class, Williams is the likely starter after Nolan Cooney decided to forego his extra year of eligiblity at Syracuse. He redshirted in 2020 and looks to carry on the tradition of All-Conference (and NFL-bound) punters at Syracuse.

Returner: Trebor Pena. As a true freshman, Pena appeared in nine games, primarily on special teams. He was named ACC Specialist of the Week after he returned a 98-yard kickoff return against NC State on Nov. 30, SU’s first kickoff a return for a touchdown since 2011.

Kicker: Andre Szmyt: Szmyt is likely NFL bound after this year, though his production has tailed off since he was the first Syracuse player to win the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker in 2018. He was an All-ACC Third Team Selection in 2019, and missed the team entirely in 2020 after converting 9-of-11 field goals and 23-of-24 PATs. It’s likely he’ll handle kick-off duties, as well.

Long-snapper: Aaron Bolinsky. The senior has started every game as a sophomore in 2019 and junior in 2020, and has 30 starts to his name.


Who’s Out

  • Jawhar Jordan: Jordan was expected to play a key part of SU’s special teams in 2020 after he racked up 114 return yards in his redshirt season. But Jordan, who was Syracuse’s starting running back to start the 2020 season, suffered a season-ending injury against Georgia Tech, and entered the transfer portal in January.
  • Nykeim Johnson: Johnson was a Second Team All-ACC kick returner in 2020, and was also the ACC’s leader in punt returns (14.1 yards per return). Still, Johnson had a disappointing year as a wide receiver, catching just 20 passes for 323 yards, and transferred to Kent State in the offseason, reuniting with former Syracuse assistant coach Sean Lewis.
  • Nolan Cooney: Cooney emerged as an NFL prospect in his fifth year when he won the starting punting role. In 2020, he earned All-America and All-ACC honors after 74 punt attempts for a 44.8 yard average, which earned him a spot on the New Orleans Saints.

» Related: Breaking down Syracuse’s 2020 linebacker group

Quick Takes

  • The biggest loss for the unit may not be a player, but special teams coordinator Justin Lustig, who left for Vanderbilt in the offseason. Since 2017, when Lustig joined Babers, the Orange averaged 43.7 yards per punt. Babers replaced Lustig with former New York Jets assistant special teams coordinator Jeff Hammerschmidt, who was hired as a special teams analyst. It remains to be seen whether this move will have any impact on the bottom line.
  • If Cooney makes the New Orleans Saints opening day roster, that will be three straight punters the Orange will have placed in the NFL (Sterling Hofrichter, Riley Dixon). Kohl’s Kicking rated Williams a five-star recruit in his class, so he clearly has plenty of potential, and he’s had a redshirt year to adjust to the speed of the college game.
  • Pena is likely Syracuse’s return specialist, but it’s unclear who will back him up or join him on kickoffs. Syracuse doesn’t specifically recruit to the position, but certainly Garrett Williams should be in the mix. After Williams collected an impressive pick-6 against Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Babers quipped that Syracuse “may have a new punt returner.” With Jordan and Johnson gone, that joke may have some truth to it.

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About Wes Cheng 2907 Articles
Wes has worked for Rivals.com covering the New York Knicks, as well as for Scout.com covering Syracuse athletics. Wes has also been a contributing writer for the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), for SportsNet New York (SNY) as a news desk writer covering all of New York professional sports, and reported on the NBA and MLB for the New York Sportscene. A native of Long Island, New York, Wes graduated from Syracuse University in 2005 with a degree in journalism. Contact him at wes[at]sujuiceonline.com.