Then and Now - football - Part 8 | Syracusefan.com

Then and Now - football - Part 8

SWC75

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(What is in italics, I wrote in my pre-season preview last August. If it's not in italics, I wrote it now.)

Kickers
Seniors: Colby Barker 6-1 215
Juniors: Andre Szmyt 6-1 210 (up from 184, which down from 194 in 2019)
Sophomores:
Freshmen: James Williams 6-1 215 (up from 199)

Barker is a grad transfer from Ohio State. He’d hoped to be treated a s junior under the Covid rules but the roster lists him as a “redshirt senior”. He played Lacrosse at Ohio State but wanted to see if he could become a football kicker. He averaged 35.3 yards per punt on 14 punts in high school. Considering Nolan Cooney set a school record by averaging 44.8 yards per punt and his two predecessors are also in the NFL, I’m not sure what Colby brings to the table here.


Not much. His one punt was right up the chute for 8 yards. We never saw him the rest of the season. Maybe he can still play lacrosse?

Szmyt (“Schmidt”) is the big name here. He burst upon the season in the what now seems magical year of 2018, when so many things went right, scoring 151 points, (second in the country behind Travis Etienne’s 156) on a national best 30 field goals in 34 attempts, (the national record is 31), and 61 of 61 extra points. Yes, he made 91 of 95 place kicks! It got him the Lou Groza award as the nation’s best kicker. Since then, he’s scored 140 points in two years. It’s not that he’s fallen off, (at least not very far): the team has, scoring 523 points in 2018 and 535 since. When Szmyt has gotten the chance to display his talents he’s made 26 of 31 field goals and 62 of 64 extra points. Dino wishes he spent as much time worrying about other aspects of his team as he does about the place-kicking.

Szmyt became a worry this season as his decline continued. People talked about an injury or problems with the hold but Dino refused to alibi for him. He was 9 for 14 on field goals, including a 19-yard chip shot miss at Virginia Tech and would-be tying 48 yarder against Clemson. He also missed two extra points. He still holds all of our place-kicking records and was going to move on but the hiring of new special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky semes to have changed his mind. (We knew we needed one.) “I’m looking to walk off like the year I walked on!” I like the sound of that.

Williams was that rarity, a big-time kicking recruit. Cuse.com: “Ranked among the top kickers in the country by (No. 2), the 247Sports.com composite index (No. 9) and ESPN (No. 10) … Rated five stars and the No. 4 punter and No. 13 placekicker in the 2020 class by Kohl’s Kicking…. As a senior captain, converted 52 out of 53 (.981) extra points and 4-of-5 (.800) field goals, while averaging 35.8 yards on 25 punts.” Great, but why does he have Colby Barker’s punting average?

He doesn’t any more. While Barker averaged 8 yards on one kick, Williams averaged 38.44 on 39 kicks. A walk-on named Ian Hawkins averaged 37.15 on 26 kicks. Both were a huge come-down from Nolan Cooney’s record 44.8 average the previous year. They improved somewhat as the year went along but it’s telling that Dino granted a scholarship to an Australian punter: Maximilian Von Margurg from Wagga Wagga, South Wales. That’s a pretty good job of ‘spiraling out’ from Syracuse.

If our placing kicking and punting had bene at the level of prior years, that alone would have bene enough to get us into a bowl game.

Snappers
Seniors: none
Juniors: Aaron Bolinsky 5-11 218
Sophomores: none
Freshman: Joey Kelly 6-1 193, Mike Midkiff 6-3 195

It’s the same three guys they had last year with the same eligibility years so I’ll just repeat what I said about them last year:

Aaron Bolinsky has been a big part of the success of our kickers and should be a major asset with a new punter. He “Stepped into the role of starting snapper for punts and placement kicks after Matt Keller was injured on Sept. 29, (2018), at Clemson” (Cuse.com) and we didn’t skip a beat. Kelly and Midkiff will try to do the same when Aaron leaves but that doesn’t have to be for two seasons yet.


Aaron’s back. That’s all we need to know. He decided to come back when Andre did. These guys are ‘joined at the hip’, which makes those long snaps interesting.

Kick returners
Seniors:
Juniors:
Sophomores:
Freshmen: Trebor Pena 6-0 185

Pena is the only guy who retuned a kick for Syracuse last year who is back this year and he returned one of them 98 yards for a touchdown. He returned his other six kicks for a very creditable 127 yards. He didn’t return any punts. The trend toward big wide-outs makes them a less likely choice for returning kicks but the slot guys Courtney Jackson and Pena are the types that could help us there. I don’t think we want to use any of our running backs in that role. It seems mostly left to the defensive backs to provide the returners. Duce Chestnut would seem like someone you’d want in this role, since he had an incredible “13 career special teams touchdowns” in his high school career. For the fourth year in a row I’ll say that I’d love to see Eric Coley returning kick-offs.


Pena was our #1 return man until he got hurt against Virginia Tech. he averaged a strong 24.8 yards per kickoff return and an OK 7.7 yards per punt return. He seemed to have the size and speed to take another one back all the way but never did. Instead, his replacement, Courtney Jackson did, from 64 yards out, to clinch the Boston College game. Jackson averaged 19.5 on kick-off s but 18.3 on 6 punt returns, which would have led the country if he had enough returns. (Take out the 64 yarder and he’s still at 9.2). They will both be back and will again make quite a tandem.

All three magazines suggested that losing Special teams coordinator Justin Lusting to Vanderbilt was a major loss. But the new guy, Jeff Hammerschmidt, had the same position with the New York Jets. I like what Cuse.com said about him: “While he was in New York, the Jets special teams unit ranked fourth in the NFL for fewest penalties, while also ranking in the top-10 in total touchdowns (five), blocked punts (two), forced fumbles (three), kickoff return average (22.9) and kickoff return average against (21.3).

In 2018, Hammerschmidt assisted a special teams unit that was widely regarded as the best in the league, finishing in the top-five in kickoff return average (third; 26.9), punt return average (13.0) and field goal percentage (fourth; 91.7-percent)”. Sounds good to me.


It turned out that Hammerschmidt was a ‘special teams analyst’, not a coach:

Jeff Hammerschmidt - Football Coach - Syracuse University Athletics

I would think his analysis of the results would not entirely favorable.

Steele said “Sometimes I’m surprised when a coach is fired but I was surprised when Syracuse opted to retain Babers. Syracuse has won more than 2 ACC games twice in a season since joining the ACC in 2013. They did play most of 2020 with about 60 scholarship players barely being able to play each week. SU has cracked the top 50 in recruiting rankings just once since joining the ACC in 2013 and only 8 players remain from that class, (2018). This is a much improved team but at -199 ypg in ACC play they have a lot of ground to close.”

Well Dino’s still here, for at least another year. We re much improved: over 1-10. But we need to be much improved over 5-7 next year.

Lindy’s: “Syracuse is on the road to recovery, but it hinges on improved offensive line play…Non-conference games should offer some young position groups a chance to acclimate before the conference season heats up but Ohio and Rutgers are no pushovers and upstart Liberty is back on the schedule. Syracuse needs to hit the ground running in September to avoid another disastrous season.”

We won 3 of our first four, including Ohio and Liberty. But we were 2-6 the rest of the way, as we usually are in the ACC. We avoided a disaster, but we didn’t erase the memory of one.

Athlon: “After the pandemic contributed to a ghastly 2020 season, the eligibility flexibility that resulted gives Syracuse bolstered depth for this fall and potentially the next few seasons as well. Whether SU can capitalize on that, against teams that also have the same luxury, is the issue. And, as been the case the last two years, it all starts with the offensive line. If that group can do enough to let Babers and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert run their veer-and-shoot system comfortably, SU has the pieces in place to compete with most of its opponents. But if the front five struggles again, another losing season appears likely.” We have a ‘veer-and-shoot’ system?

Maybe that was the ‘veer and shoot’ we ran after Shrader took over. The line held up fairly well, despite some more injuries, as some young players showed they could play.

Athlon has a section quoting opposing coaches, (anonymously). “If I had to pick one program that falls apart this year, it’s probably here or Duke. Right now it’s a train wreck, at least externally”….”it’s just that the era of “go real fast and throw verts’ has sort of run its course for the moment, compounded by the fact that other teams in this league run that system better and with better players.”….The offensive line is probably the worst in the league…You don’t’ have to blitz to get home on them , so you don’t really have to disguise much of what you are doing…..They struggle up front on defense. That’s where you see the lack of talent compared to the top half of the teams in the league……I don’t’ see things getting much better for them because the offensive scheme is really the identity and recruiting to it when you’re up in New York just isn’t going to work….I think their situation is a lot like Duke’s success a few years ago. It’s possible to have one or two really good years in this league if the division is down. They’re on Clemson’s side but I think they feasted programs dealing with their own down years and now, that’s not the case. BC is better. NC State is better. It would be surprising if they were able to make another run.”

It was Duke, fortunately, for us. We did switch away from “go real fast and throw verts”, (is that the veer and shoot?), although it doesn’t seem like the permanent answer. The defense looked pretty good, for the most part.

Overall: We picked ourselves up off the ground but then got knocked down again in November. With a strong running game and a good defense coming back, there is hope but the passing game and special teams have to make a comeback to get to the bowl game that could save Dino Babers’ job.

My fear is that he’s already sealed his fate by a decision he made last year. It wasn’t so much the move from Tommy DeVito to Garrett Shrader. It was the totality of the move. Dino said in pre-season that he was on an Arizona team, (1998) that alternated two quarterbacks, one who was a better runner and the other who was a better passer and they went 12-1. But that was a smokescreen for the opposing coaches in the early games. He later admitted that he had been against alternating QBs at Arizona, (where he was the OC/QB coach) and that he didn’t want to do it here because you do better if you have a #1 guy and give him most of the reps. That maybe true. But the cost was that everybody, (at least among the veteran players) who came here to be part of our ‘veer and vert’ or whatever it is, including DeVito, leading wide-out Taj Harris and the under-used tight end Luke Benson transferred out, leaving us with a poor man’s Tim Tebo at quarterback, (without the Florida talent around him). When defenses adjusted to the fact that we had no consistent passing game and packed the box, we started losing by the sort of scores we were losing by in 2020.

If Dino had switched quarterbacks, we might have retained our passing talent. I understand that they weren’t setting the world on fire before the switch but a pitcher needs a fast ball and curveball. We needed the versatility of being able to switch to a passing attack when the run wasn’t working and if we fell significantly behind. Even more importantly, it would have allowed Dino and his staff to recruit passers and receivers from the transfer portal, junior college and/or high schools and portray Shrader as a temporary stop-gap. But how does he do that in the face of the exodus of the players recruited to play in a high-powered passing offense while we run an offense Ben Schwartzwalder would have admired?

I expect the kicking game to improve. The running game and defense will be where we need them to be if we can find three good down linemen. But we need a passing attack to at least compliment them if not match them. There’s hope Shrader can be better at passing the ball than he was last year. At Mississippi State, as a freshman against SEC defenses, he completed 57.5% pf his passes for an average gain of 13.3 yards per catch. He had 8TD passes among his 88 completions, (one TD in 11 completions) and 5 interceptions. This year at Syracuse, he completed 52.4% for an average gain of 11.8 yards. He had 9TDs among 122 completions, (1 in 14 completions) and 4 interceptions. Take his Mississippi State averages and apply them to his 233 attempts in Syracuse, (vs. 153 at State) and he throws for 134 completions for 1,782 yards, (345 more than he actually did), and 12TDs, (rather than 9). That could put us in a bowl game.

Then there are his young receivers: Anthony Queeley and Damien Alford on the outside, along with Oronde Gadsden and Umari Hatcher and the slots Courtney Jackson and Tebor Pena. As they mature they will learn to run the their routes better, get some space, make some catches, come back to help a scrambling quarterback and also block for each other and for running players. All the wide-outs are big guys. Queeley is 6-2 205. Alford is 6-6 215. Gadsden 6-5 210, Hatcher 6-3 170. They are big targets. And Jackson and Pena are not smurfs: 5-11 185 and 6-0 185. These guys can make it a lot easier on a quarterback than they did in 2021.

If we can get passing, rushing, defense and the kicking game all functioning at a productive level, this program can pull out of its rut. Sports is about hope. If you don’t have it, what’s the point?
 

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