During Syracuse’s 1-6 meltdown at the end of last season, there were many issues to blame. A lethargic run defense. Injuries. Lack of discipline. No reliable receivers behind Oronde Gadsden. As glaring as all of those are, one key aspect of football that the Orange failed in has been swept under the rug a bit. SU’s special teams down the stretch were not good at all, and it’s an issue that must be addressed quickly if Dino Babers hopes to get to a second consecutive bowl game.
Every aspect of special teams has to succeed for the unit to be considered a good one. Two issues in particular arose near the end of last season.
For as up-and-down as his tenure on the hill was, Andre Szmyt is a big loss. He’s a former Groza award winner who as good as singlehandedly won the Virginia game early in the season. However, in all four games in November, Szmyt missed at least one field goal. Two of those games were 10-point losses to Pitt and Wake Forest. If Szmyt had converted on his opportunities, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that those games take a different turn (not necessarily resulting in an Orange victory).
As things sit right now, Brady Denaburg is the primary candidate to take over for Szmyt. The Florida native was SU’s kickoff specialist down the stretch last season and has solid placekicking experience- he was a perfect 44-for-44 on PATs and hit a 57-yard FG as a senior in high school. There’s a lot of unfair pressure on Denaburg given who he is replacing, but he has to give the position something it simply did not have with Szmyt- consistency.
Make no mistake, this applies to both punts and kickoffs. Both units had severe lapses that can never ever happen at any stage of football.
Starting with the punt return unit, flashback to the regular season finale in Chestnut Hill. Syracuse has lost five in a row, and is already down 3-0 after a strip sack on its first set of downs. The last thing you need is a blocked punt, and that’s exactly what happened. Boston College stormed through like it was nothing, and went up 10-0 because of it. The Orange wound up winning the game, but if something like that had happened against NC State or Purdue, a win was not in the cards.
You’d think SU would work to fix such issues come the Pinstripe Bowl, right? Well, Minnesota ran a kickoff to the Syracuse 25-yard line in the 3rd quarter and went on to score what wound up as the deciding touchdown. Head scratching, isn’t it?
It doesn’t matter that these failures from the return units only happened a few times, stuff like this should never happen to an ACC football team. A disciplined one at least.
Star players on offense and defense tend to get all the love for highlight-reel plays. A reason special teams stars are often left out of that is that you can typically make more headlines for special teams failures as opposed to successes. It’s something that needs to be seriously addressed over these next few weeks of summer as the season draws closer.