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 discussing Syracuse’s 2022 special teams.
Today we take a look at one of the more unheralded aspects of the game of football, special teams.
Syracuse has had a pretty solid special teams unit the last couple of years, albeit in the performance of the kickers rather than in return men taking back opposing kicks for touchdowns. Until recently, Syracuse was one of only seven schools in the Power-5 that didn’t have a coach as a full-time special teams coordinator.
That changed in December of 2021 when head coach Dino Babers brought in Bob Ligashesky who spent 12 years in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl with the Steelers in 2008 as the special teams coordinator. Among many other stops in the college sphere over a 37 year career, Ligashesky was most recently with Bowling Green where placekicker Nate Needham led the country in field goal percentage (.950).
It should be a welcome addition as former Lou Groza award winning kicker Andre Szmyt had a down year in 2021 by all measurables, going just 9-of-14 on field goals including a couple of key misses in the Clemson and Wake Forest games. A seasoned coach with professional experience should be able to come in and get Szmyt’s game back on track as well as find another leg to handle kickoff duties, to take that extra strain off of Szmyt.
As it stands, here’s how I see SU’s depth chart at the beginning of July:
- Andre Szmyt- 6’1” 202 pounds
- James Williams- 6’1” 206 pounds
Szmyt is the unquestioned No. 1, even with a new coordinator and a down year last year. He won the Lou Groza award for the nation’s top kicker as a walk-on his freshman year, and currently holds the school records for FGs made (65) and FG% (.823). My feeling is handling kick off duties last year was too much strain on one of the most active legs in the country, and we’ll see Ligashesky assign those duties to another player in 2022.
Williams is the back-up kicker should anything happen to Szmyt due to his status as a five-star kicker coming out of high school, ranking as high as the number two kicker in the country by Rivals. He also has a pretty hilarious stat line for his senior season, making just 4-of-5 field goals that year but going 52-of-53 on extra points. That team must have been fun to watch.
» Related: Previewing Syracuse football’s 2022 secondary
- James Williams- 6’1” 206 pounds
- Ian Hawkins- 6’0” 183 pounds
- Maximilian Von Marburg- 6’0” 181 pounds
Williams has the punting job locked up for the reasons listed above as well as his performance before injury last year, playing in eight games and punting 39 times for 1499 yards, averaging 38.44 yards per punt and downing nine kicks inside the 20. He would be my top candidate for kickoff duties should Ligashesky make a change.
Hawkins gets a shot at the back-up job thanks to his performance last year while Williams was injured. He took over in the Florida State game and had six punts with a 33.17 yards average, then again took the reins for the final three games of the year. His best game was against Pitt in the season finale where he had seven punts for a 41.0 yard average.
Von Marburg is a big leg coming over from Australia where he won the 2019 leading goal scorer award in the Riverina Football league’s under 17’s for the Turvey Park Bulldogs. A team loading up on punters is never a good sign for an incumbent with an injury history, so this three-way camp battle under Ligashesky will be one to watch.
Not to be forgotten are the players who will be returning the opposing teams’ kicks. This is an area where Syracuse has needed more juice for years, and with Ligashesky coming in, I suspect there will be an open competition in camp for whoever can prove themself the most worthy.
- Trebor Pena- 6’0” 176 pounds
- Courtney Jackson- 5’11” 175 pounds
Pena gets the top spot due to his experience, but sits on shaky ground due to his injury history, appearing in only 15 games over his two years as the lead returner/wide receiver. He’s great when out there, having the first kickoff return for a touchdown for the Orange since 2011 back in 2020, and leading the ACC in combined return yardage in 2021 before going out with injury in week nine.
Jackson gets the number two spot due to the flashes he’s shown in limited work, coming in for Pena for the final four games and returning three punts for 110 yards and a touchdown, and four kicks for 78 yards. He has great speed similar to Pena, but his value as the team’s leading wide receiver last year limits him to emergency duties only.
So we have a pretty solid group overall, with the top talent looking to bounce back after an uncharacteristic down year, and the unit overall looking to increase their play-making ability. There’s some unknowns on how Ligashesky will run the show, but I feel like this group is in good hands and will go back to being a bright spot for the Orange in 2022.
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